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Let Ancient People Speak for Themselves: Round II

At the beginning of this year I put up a post called "Let Ancient People Speak for Themselves." Recently, in the course of doing research for the book I am currently writing (hence my slower blogging pace), I have been putting together a large number of additional ancient quotations on historical veracity.

The record is, in fact, quite impressive. When put up against claims that ancient people were interested not in boring facts but rather in "higher truth," such quotations are simply overwhelming.

As before, let me begin with one such statement about the alleged way ancient people thought, by Richard Burridge, a classicist who has been heavily influential upon evangelical literary device theorists concerning the Gospels. In fact, Michael Licona cites Burridge's chapter on the Gospel of John, from the same book in which Burridge makes the following claims about how John thought, in support of Licona's own statement that John "often chose to sacrifice accuracy on the ground level of precise reporting" in the service of "higher-level" truth about Jesus (Licona, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels, p. 115). This echoes Burridge's view of John very closely. Here is Burridge:

We must not transfer these modern concepts to ancient texts without considering their understandings of truth and myth, lies and fiction. To modern minds, 'myth' means something untrue, a 'fairy-story'; in the ancient world, myth was the medium whereby profound truth, more truly true than mere facts could ever be, was communicated. The opposite of truth is not fiction, but lies and deception; yet even history can be used to deceive, while stories can bring truth. This issue of truth and fiction in the ancient world is too complex to cover in detail here. However, the most important point to remember is that the ancients were more interested in the moral worth and philosophical value of statements than their logical status, in truth more than facts....Unfortunately, the debate between so-called 'conservatives' and 'liberals' about authenticity is often conducted in twenty-first-century terms. As one student asked me, 'Why does John keep fabricating material about Jesus despite his expressed concern for the "truth"?' However, the negative connotation of 'fabrication' is modern. Richard Burridge, Four Gospels, One Jesus? A Symbolic Reading, pp. 169-170

In support of this unjustified bit of psychologizing, which makes ancient men sound suspiciously like 21st-century humanities professors, Burridge offers the fact that the historian Tacitus appears to have invented a speech for a British chieftain named Calgacus to give to his troops before a battle. (For more on speeches, see below.) Burridge then goes on to imply that the author of John literally did not really care what Jesus historically said,

Thus, John’s stress on “truth” is not about ‘documented fact’, but the ‘higher truth’ of who Jesus is....For him, Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life”, so his Jesus says these words (Jn. 14:6), just as Tacitus’ Calgacus condemns Roman imperialism, or Matthew’s Jesus speaks from a mountain as another Moses. To ask whether either Jesus or Calgacus actually ever spoke those words is to miss the point completely. (Four Gospels, One Jesus, pp. 170-171)

Really? Notice, by the way, how strong a view this is. Burridge literally says that it is asking the wrong question to ask whether Jesus actually said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." That was what Jesus was "to" the author of the Gospel, and that was all that mattered to the author of the Gospel. Remember that next time someone tries to tell you that literary device views are minor, little tweaks that don't have much effect upon our view of the historicity of the Gospels.

One must also be mildly amused at the gratuitous swipe at Matthew. How odd that Matthew would suggest that the historical Jesus sat on a real mountain to talk to the crowds. Considering the extreme paucity of mountainsides in Galilee, we are forced to the inescapable conclusion that Jesus' speaking on a mountain is a theological invention to allude to Jesus as the second Moses!

Of such sentences is "sophisticated" criticism of the Gospels constructed.

The late Leon Morris quotes (and strongly disagrees with) a similar view of the Gospels and truth:

C. Braaten speaks of the view "that the intention of the Gospels is not to transmit historical information about Jesus, but to portray him as God's eschatological deed of salvation." (In Leon Morris, Studies in the Fourth Gospel, p. 95)

Burridge's ideas about the casual attitude toward history allegedly found in the Gospels are nothing new.

Now, let's let ancient people speak for themselves.

I begin with a couple of definitions of truth given by two undeniably ancient authors--Aristotle and Plato. Both philosophers define “truth” in a way that anticipates and provides the kernel of what is known in later philosophy as the “correspondence view of truth.” Aristotle famously said, “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.” (Aristotle, Metaphysics 4.1011b.1) Plato says (in the mouth of Socrates) something almost identical: “[A] true proposition says that which is, and a false proposition says that which is not[.]” (Plato, Cratylus 385b.)

Next, this, from the historian Thucydides (c. 460-400 B.C.), The History of the Poloponnesian War:

But as to the actions of the war, I have not been content to report them on the authority of any chance informant, or from my own conception of them; but either from personal knowledge where I was present, or after the most careful investigation possible in every case where I gained my information from others. Very laborious were these inquiries; since those who were present in the several actions did not all give the same account of the same affair, but as they were swayed by favour to one side or the other, or as their memory served them. Possibly this avoidance of any fabulous embellishment may make my work less entertaining; but I shall be well content if those shall pronounce my history useful, who desire to gain a view of events as they really did happen, and as they are very likely, in accordance with human nature, to repeat themselves at some future time...And it is designed rather as a possession for ever than as a mere prize composition to be listened to for the moment. (The History of the Poloponnesian War 1.21-22)

As in the case of Lucian, quoted multiple times below, Thucydides also has a famous quotation in this same work about the reporting of speeches.

With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one's memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.

This quotation from Thucydides is often misunderstood as generally advocating making up speeches, when in fact Thucydides indicates an attempt to the extent that one is able to obtain sources for speeches and to resort to some degree of hypothetical reconstruction only when one is unable to get sufficient other information. Moreover, the above quotation about the actions of the war shows a distinction between speeches (by which he apparently means set speeches, not just anything anybody says) and other incidents, which must be very carefully sourced.

I am planning a separate chapter on speeches in the book I am currently working on.

Literary device theorists have an extremely unfortunate habit of trying to spread around the effect of freedom in reporting speeches to "ancient views" of history generally, and that is highly misleading.

Thucydides actually prefers to cite incidents where he was present. Richard Bauckham has pointed out that this emphasis upon eyewitness testimony as an historical “best practice” is common in ancient historians, and this of course fits extremely well with Luke’s preface to his Gospel and his claim to have talked with those who were “eyewitnesses from the beginning.” What it does not fit at all with is a general ancient feeling that literal truth was not the aim and that literal truth could be readily set aside in the service of “higher truth.”

Here is Polybius (c. 200-118 B.C.) on truth in reporting history (and even speeches):

A historian should not try to astonish his readers by sensationalism, nor, like the tragic poets, seek after men’s probable utterances and enumerate all the possible consequences of the events under consideration, but simply record what really happened and was said, however commonplace. For the object of history is the very opposite of that of tragedy. The tragic writer seeks by the most plausible language to thrill and charm the audience temporarily; the historian by real facts and real speeches seeks to instruct and convince serious students for all time. There it is the probable that counts, even though it be false, the object being to beguile the spectator; here it is the truth, the object being to benefit the student. (emphasis added) (Polybius, The Histories, II.56.10-12)

Here is Dionysius of Helicarnassus (fl. 20 B.C.) writing about how he gathered information about his subject. Notice the emphasis upon not having invented events and having gathered information from what he deemed to be reliable sources.

Having thus given the reason for my choice of subject, I wish now to say something concerning the sources I used while preparing for my task. For it is possible that those who have already read Hieronymus, Timaeus, Polybius, or any of the other historians whom I just now mentioned,...since they will not have found in those authors many things mentioned by me, will suspect me of inventing them and will demand to know how I came by the knowledge of these particulars. Lest anyone, therefore, should entertain such an opinion of me, it is best that I should state in advance what narratives and records I have used as sources. I arrived in Italy at the very time that Augustus Caesar put an end to the civil war, in the middle of the one hundred and eighty-seventh Olympiad. and having from that time to this present day, a period of twenty-two years, lived at Rome, learned the language of the Romans and acquainted myself with their writings, I have devoted myself during all that time to matters bearing upon my subject. Some information I received orally from men of the greatest learning, with whom I associated; and the rest I gathered from histories written by the approved Roman authors...With these works, which are like the Greek annalistic accounts, as a basis, I set about the writing of my history. Dionysius of Helicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, I.7.1-3

It is difficult to imagine an approach more at odds with the dismissive attitude toward literal truth that Burridge attributes to the ancients. Dionysius is concerned lest his readers think that he invented some parts of his narrative, in case they do not find them in the sources they think he must have used. He insists that he has a variety of sources that he deems reliable and did not make up the unique material.

Here is Cicero (106-43 B.C.) on the nature and goal of history:


Indeed, all rules respecting it [history] are obvious to common view; for who is ignorant that it is the first law in writing history, that the historian must not dare to tell any falsehood, and the next, that he must be bold enough to tell the whole truth? Also, that there must be no suspicion of partiality in his writings, or of personal animosity? Cicero, De Oratore, 2.62

The historian Arrian gives an interesting account of how he gathered information for his life of Alexander the Great:

Different authors have given different accounts of Alexander's life; and there is no one about whom more have written, or more at variance with each other. But in my opinion the narratives of Ptolemy and Aristobulus are more worthy of credit than the rest; Aristobulus, because he served under king Alexander in his expedition, and Ptolemy, not only because he accompanied Alexander in his expedition, but also because he was himself a king afterwards, and falsification of facts would have been more disgraceful to him than to any other man. Moreover, they are both more worthy of credit, because they compiled their histories after Alexander's death, when neither compulsion was used nor reward offered them to write anything different from what really occurred. Arrian, Preface to the Anabasis of Alexander.

Modern readers, obviously, are not going to share Arrian’s snobbish idea that Ptolemy was more likely to be truthful because he became a king. But Arrian’s aristocratic bias, despite our disagreement with his generalization about kings, nonetheless shows his goal--to avoid the falsification of facts and get at the truth of events in a straightforward sense of "truth." Similarly, we see here again the common preference for those who actually participated in the actions recounted. In addition, Arrian considers it important to use sources who (in his opinion) are less likely to be biased because they wrote after the subject in question was dead and could not pressure them.

Notice how well Luke's famous preface to his Gospel fits with all of this:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. Luke 1:1-4

The emphasis upon eyewitnesses, the emphasis upon Luke's own careful investigation, and the emphasis upon factual truth--they are all here.

And now, some quotations from Lucian of Samosata, How to Write History. Lucian was a satirist, and much of this work is taken up with his mockery of other writers of history whom he regards as incompetent. One gets the feeling that, like a British comedian, Lucian took his humor very seriously. Nonetheless, along with mercilessly lampooning others (sometimes for being careless about facts), he has quite a few things to say about the standards that should obtain for historical accuracy, and he does not go easy on alterations of literal historical truth for the sake of ulterior goals.

Now some think they can make a satisfactory distinction in history between what gives pleasure and what is useful, and for this reason work eulogy into it as giving pleasure and enjoyment to its readers; but do you see how far they are from the truth? In the first place, the distinction they draw is false: history has one task and one only--what is useful —and that comes from truth alone. As to what gives pleasure, it is certainly better if it is there incidentally, like good looks in an athlete.... So it is with history. If she were to make the mistake of dealing in pleasure as well she would attract a host of lovers, but as long as she keeps only what is hers alone in all its fullness — I mean the publication of the truth — she will give little thought to beauty. (paragraph 9)

Lucian here emphatically disagrees with anyone who thinks that usefulness is best served by altering the truth. Rather, the uses of history are served only by telling the actual truth.

Let's see, is there anything else pertinent in Lucian? Why, yes, there is:

The historian's one task is to tell the thing as it happened. This he cannot do, if he is Artaxerxes's physician trembling before him, or hoping to get a purple cloak, a golden chain, a horse of the Nisaean breed, in payment for his laudations. A fair historian, a Xenophon, a Thucydides, will not accept that position. He may nurse some private dislikes, but he will attach far more importance to the public good, and set the truth high above his hate; he may have his favourites, but he will not spare their errors. For history, I say again, has this and this only for its own; if a man will start upon it, he must sacrifice to no God but Truth; he must neglect all else; his sole rule and unerring guide is this--to think not of those who are listening to him now, but of the yet unborn who shall seek his converse. (emphasis added, paragraph 39)

Colin Hemer has pointed out the rather striking fact that Lucian’s dictum here sounds almost exactly like the famous dictum of the nineteenth century historian Leopold von Ranke that history seeks to show what actually happened--wie es eigentlich gewesen. Again, these emphatic statements about sacrificing to no God but truth and telling what actually happened are light-years away from the picture Burridge gives of the ancient man, writing about allegedly historical characters, as caring for “higher truth” rather than for facts.

But let's see. Perhaps I am cherry-picking. You never know what else might be in Lucian. Oh, here's something relevant:

Facts are not to be collected at haphazard, but with careful, laborious, repeated investigation; when possible, a man should have been present and seen for himself; failing that, he should prefer the disinterested account, selecting the informants least likely to diminish or magnify from partiality. And here comes the occasion for exercising the judgement in weighing probabilities. (emphasis added) (paragraph 47)

What can “weighing probabilities” in one’s sources possibly refer to here other than the probabilities that what his sources say is historically factual? Indeed, if "the ancients" took the sort of attitude Burridge describes to factual truth, why bother choosing sources carefully and weighing probabilities at all?

And then there's this. (Still Lucian.)

History then should be written in that spirit, with truthfulness and an eye to future expectations rather than with adulation and a view to the pleasure of present praise. There is your rule and standard for impartial history. (paragraph 63)

And this (still Lucian):

Above all, let him bring a mind like a mirror, clear, gleaming-bright, accurately centred, displaying the shape of things just as he receives them, free from distortion, false colouring, and misrepresentation. His concern is different from that of the orators — what historians have to relate is fact and will speak for itself, for it has already happened: what is required is arrangement and exposition. So they must look not for what to say but how to say it. (paragraph 51)

Any attempt to use the reference here to “arrangement” to grant license to use fictionalizing literary devices would be extremely strained, one might say desperate. It is obviously possible to arrange historical information without deliberately making it look like things happened in a way that they did not actually happen. Meanwhile, the reference to a mind like a mirror, to the fact that the historian's concern is different from that of an orator, and to the objectivity of historical truth are striking. Lucian hammers home the theme of impartiality and factual truthfulness again and again.

Recently, a supporter of Michael Licona's work noted that I gave this last Lucian quote (paragraph 51) in a Facebook update, set to public, as a standalone quotation. I had previously noted (also in a public post) that I was enjoying gathering these historical quotations and that they refute the notion (a la Burridge) that the "ancient people" had a fuzzy idea of the importance of literal truth.

This supporter of Licona's work has implied that I am misleading readers because I gave the quotation about a "mind like a mirror" from Lucian in one Facebook status update without also giving the following quotation, paragraph 58, which grants license to historians to "use eloquence" in constructing speeches:

When it comes in your way to introduce a speech, the first requirement is that it should suit the character both of the speaker and of the occasion; the second is (once more) lucidity; but in these cases you have the counsel's right of showing your eloquence.

Obviously, my one quotation from Lucian was not intended to comprise the whole of what I had to say on the subject! I had already been planning an explicit discussion of the subject of speeches, including Lucian's paragraph 58, in my forthcoming book.

In any event, this extremely brief reference by Lucian to composing and/or rewording ancient speeches is to be set in the context of his repeated, emphatic exhortations to truthfulness in historical writing, already quoted from the same work. The idea that such a license in the reporting of speeches turns all of the references to literal truthfulness into some kind of arcane, ancient code for "literal truth doesn't really matter very much after all" is utterly untenable and cannot possibly fit either with the rest of what Lucian says, with the rest of what the Gospel authors have said, or with what Richard Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p. 9) refers to as "best practices" of ancient historians. Indeed, it is utterly at odds with all of the other quotations just given.

What it comes to (briefly), rather, is that some (by no means all) ancient historians had a separation between speeches (set speeches) and other reportage and granted a greater license in the former than in the latter. Thucydides' separation between speeches and sourcing of "the actions of the war," already mentioned, hints at this.

Nor am I by any means the only person to note the distinction. Morris (Studies in the Fourth Gospel, pp. 68-69) notes that this distinction had already been studied by A.W. Mosley. Colin Hemer's judicious and fascinating discussion of speeches both in Chapter 3 of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History and in an appendix to the same work makes the further distinction between authors who invented speeches without sources and those who used sources to report speeches. He deplores the simplistic idea that the ancients simply thought it was okay to invent speeches and so (therefore) Luke probably did so.

In other words, ancient writers differed among themselves even in their scrupulousness about reporting speeches, and they differed further in that even those who allowed license in reporting speeches did not ipso facto allow it in other areas. Very much to the contrary.

My quoting Lucian's comment about an historian's "mind like a mirror" is not misleading. As the other quotations here show, that quotation from that work is representative. Instead, real confusion arises when one quotes and extrapolates a single-sentence paragraph (#58) about showing eloquence in constructing speeches and ignores the multiple, emphatic, and unambiguous statements in favor of literal historical truth, as well as the many other statements about careful sourcing, eyewitness testimony, and the like in other ancient authors and historiographers.

There is even more to the misguided treatment of Lucian by the literary device school.

A reader of Licona’s book Why Are There Differences in the Gospels would get a very different picture of Lucian's view of history from what one gets by actually reading How to Write History. Licona is fond of a rather uninformative paragraph that does not in any way advocate the alteration of fact. Here is the quotation from Lucian that Licona cites over and over again:

After the preface, long or short in proportion to the subject, should come an easy natural transition to the narrative; for the body of the history which remains is nothing from beginning to end but a long narrative; it must therefore be graced with the narrative virtues--smooth, level, and consistent progress, neither soaring nor crawling, and the charm of lucidity--which is attained, as I remarked above, partly by the diction, and partly by the treatment of connected events. For, though all parts must be independently perfected, when the first is complete the second will be brought into essential connection with it, and attached like one link of a chain to another; there must be no possibility of separating them; no mere bundle of parallel threads; the first is not simply to be next to the second, but part of it, their extremities intermingling. (paragraph 55)

The reader will search in vain in this generalized paragraph for any reference whatsoever to an alteration of fact or apparent fact in one’s narrative. It is simply not visible to the naked eye. Nor is there any special, coded language used in it that deep scholarship can follow up on that reveals that Lucian is advocating the alteration of facts.

As one can see by reading, Lucian here merely tells the writer of history to make his narrative flow well. Lucian does not say in this paragraph how the author is to bring events into connection with one another. There are, of course, many ways for a gifted historical writer to do so and to create good flow. One might, for example, talk about how events are causally related. Or one might group events by subject without in any way altering their chronology, showing the characteristics of a given person by giving multiple illustrations. Or one might give an explicit (and truthful) chronological ordering. Earlier in How to Write History Lucian seems to suggest narrating military campaigns and battles by alternating between reporting what is going on with each side and then trying to give a “bird’s-eye view” of a battle as a whole once it has been engaged. He also suggests moving from one geographical part of a campaign to another. These would be ways of connecting parts of a military narrative, but of course they need not have anything to do with altered fact. There is nothing whatsoever in the paragraph quoted by Licona or anywhere else in the whole of How to Write History that advocates changing chronological facts.

Yet repeatedly Licona writes as if that is what Lucian is advocating in paragraph 55. He also quotes a passage by Quintilian (c. A.D. 35-100) that, similarly, says not a single word about altering any historical fact whatsoever but only about style and flow:

History does not so much demand full, rounded rhythms as a certain continuity of motion and connection of style. For all its members are closely linked together, while the fluidity of its style gives it great variety of movement; we may compare its motion to that of men, who link hands to steady their steps, and lend each other mutual support. Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, 9.5.129 as given in Licona, Why Are There Differences, p. 90

Do you see anything there about changing chronology? It's just not there.

Licona’s use of these quotations--one from Lucian and one from Quintilian--is eisegetical in the extreme. Says Licona,

The point made by Lucian and Quintilian is that historians should connect pericopes in an artistic manner by interweaving content and linking one story to another. This interweaving and linking could be especially useful when the order of events and some specific details pertaining to them are unknown. In such a scenario, we might speculate that historians were also free to create narrative details, and that this would include synthetic chronological links. Indeed, classical scholars have often suggested these types of flexibilities when the ancients wrote history. Such a practice may be why we observe so many differences, even contradictions, in the way a pericope is reported by several authors. Why Are There Differences in the Gospels, p. 90

One cannot avoid some astonishment at this suggestion out of the blue, unjustified by any statement at all in the passages quoted from Lucian and Quintilian, that historians felt free to create narrative details and so-called “synthetic chronological links,” by which Licona means the alteration of chronology.

Here is Licona doing the same thing again:

In light of instructions for good literature writing by Lucian and Quintilian, we determined that historians were permitted to craft peripheral details and connect events synthetically in order to produce a narrative that flows smoothly. (p. 110)

Licona has now moved from “we might speculate” to “we determined,” despite the fact that neither such a speculation nor such a determination is remotely licensed by Lucian’s and Quintilian’s generic comments about smoothness and style.

Licona goes on using this strange reading of Lucian's paragraph 55 and applying it to the Gospels. When he states that either John or Mark must have changed the day of the anointing of Jesus’ feet in Passion Week to a different day, he brings up again Lucian’s recommendation about joining the events one narrates like links in a chain. He suggests that John may have deliberately written as if Jesus’ feet were anointed on a Saturday, though he knew that they were actually anointed the following Wednesday, in order to narrate two stories about Mary of Bethany close together (in John chapters 11 and 12). He goes so far as to say this,

Either Mark or John appear to have changed the day, using synthetic chronological placement in order to bind the anointing explicitly to a different context than where it actually occurred. Lucian would have smiled with approval. The event is presented as historical, but the stated chronology is artificial. (p. 150)

This is truly an amazing twist on Lucian. It is not even just that Lucian simply does not say any such thing in the paragraph Licona is referring to. That is problematic enough. But more: Lucian is so emphatic about historical truth throughout the work, beating the drum on the matter over and over again. Yet using his own odd reading of one paragraph about connecting events smoothly, Licona concludes that Lucian “would have smiled with approval” at an alteration of chronological fact.

Licona does not quote in his entire book a single one of the five separate passages from How to Write History that emphasize the importance of historical accuracy and truthfulness. This despite the fact that he refers six separate times (pp. 90, 110, 150, 185, 191, 196) to his own highly dubious interpretation of paragraph 55, about writing in a connected fashion.

Licona does refer (without quoting) in passing to just one passage (paragraph 39), where Lucian advocates truthfulness in history. But Licona mentions it only in a footnote and only immediately to downplay it by setting it against paragraph 58 that allows license in creating speeches.

Even in view of his statement that the only task of the historian is to relate events as they had occurred, Lucian permitted the historian to use his oratorical skills in order to improve a speech (Hist. conscr. 39, 58). Why Are There Differences, p. 226, n. 9

This is Licona's only acknowledgement that Lucian advocates telling the literal truth. In reality, it is paragraph 58 that is the outlier.

This is not letting ancient people speak for themselves.

In closing, I cannot resist quoting yet again from my earlier post concerning Julius Africanus, because it is so pertinent:

Sextus Julius Africanus, c. AD 160-240, was a Christian historian, a convert from paganism, whose works are chiefly known through fragments preserved by Eusebius.

In his Letter to Aristides, Julius Africanus proposes a solution to the alleged discrepancies between Matthew's and Luke's genealogies of Jesus, based upon the OT practice of Levirate marriage.

Africanus leaves us in no doubt about what he thought. Apparently in Africanus's time someone had suggested that perhaps the evangelists invented some of the names in their genealogies in order to make the theological point that Jesus is prophet, priest, and king. In condemning their views, Africanus explicitly and emphatically states the principle that I have articulated elsewhere--Fake Points Don't Make Points.

Some indeed incorrectly allege that this discrepant enumeration and mixing of the names both of priestly men, as they think, and royal, was made properly, in order that Christ might be shown rightfully to be both Priest and King; as if any one disbelieved this, or had any other hope than this, that Christ is the High Priest of His Father, who presents our prayers to Him, and a supramundane King, who rules by the Spirit those whom He has delivered, a cooperator in the government of all things. And this is announced to us not by the catalogue of the tribes, nor by the mixing of the registered generations, but by the patriarchs and prophets. Let us not therefore descend to such religious trifling as to establish the kingship and priesthood of Christ by the interchanges of the names....The evangelists, therefore, would thus have spoken falsely, affirming what was not truth, but a fictitious commendation. And for this reason the one traced the pedigree of Jacob the father of Joseph from David through Solomon; the other traced that of Heli also, though in a different way, the father of Joseph, from Nathan the son of David....To no purpose, then, is this fabrication of theirs. Nor shall an assertion of this kind prevail in the Church of Christ against the exact truth, so as that a lie should be contrived for the praise and glory of Christ. For who does not know that most holy word of the apostle also, who, when he was preaching and proclaiming the resurrection of our Saviour, and confidently affirming the truth, said with great fear, If any say that Christ is not risen, and we assert and have believed this, and both hope for and preach that very thing, we are false witnesses of God, in alleging that He raised up Christ, whom He raised not up? And if he who glorifies God the Father is thus afraid lest he should seem a false witness in narrating a marvellous fact, how should not he be justly afraid, who tries to establish the truth by a false statement, preparing an untrue opinion? For if the generations are different, and trace down no genuine seed to Joseph, and if all has been stated only with the view of establishing the position of Him who was to be born—to confirm the truth, namely, that He who was to be would be king and priest, there being at the same time no proof given, but the dignity of the words being brought down to a feeble hymn,—it is evident that no praise accrues to God from that, since it is a falsehood, but rather judgment returns on him who asserts it, because he vaunts an unreality as though it were reality. (emphasis added)

Such a modern guy, that Julius Africanus. So rigid. So...nineteenth century.

The fact of the matter is that literary device theorists who try to make "the ancients" over in their own image--preferring literary artfulness to factuality, finding the latter dull--are far more anachronistic than the veriest fundamentalist, and certainly far more anachronistic than their so-called "conservative" critics.

As Colin Hemer has noted, rigorous concepts of history existed in the Gospel authors' day, and there is nothing illicit about judging them by such standards.

Let ancient people speak for themselves.

Comments (16)

When it comes in your way to introduce a speech, the first requirement is that it should suit the character both of the speaker and of the occasion; the second is (once more) lucidity; but in these cases you have the counsel's right of showing your eloquence.

Maybe I don't grasp the context of this well enough, but what is the import of the word "introduce" in regards to "introduce a speech"? Is Lucian saying that the historian narrator, in leading up to a speech given by a historical figure, is allowed to use all his eloquence in setting the scene and explaining what the person is about in the situation? That he isn't referring to the TEXT of the speech itself at all, just the scene? Or is he saying that the historian is allowed to use his eloquence in the reporting of the speech itself?

There are at least 2 reasons to be wary of the notion of Lucian saying the historian can use eloquence to make up a speech: (a) what if the historical character's speech was flat and plebian, dull and foolish, and for this very reason the hearers rejected his proposal and went in the opposite direction - even if the speaker was usually brilliant and eloquent himself (he just had an off day)? It would be idiotic to impose on the character an eloquent speech that disguises the reasons for the decision going the other way. And even if that wasn't an issue, (b) there is still a fundamental way in which making up a speech that (as told to us) persuades the crowd, or the army, or the senate, or ... to take a course of action runs the risk of the historian putting into the event HIS OWN intentions and preferences, rather than what THEY actually intended by choosing X over Y. And this is very un-Lucian-like.

I think it more reasonable that what Lucian was suggesting is that when you have sought out 5 or 10 witnesses to report what they heard the guy say, and you thus have several partial accounts which are not transparently fitted into one single discourse, the historian is allowed the art of composition, in which he takes all of the accounts as a jigsaw puzzle and fits them together as best one can, and inserts small connectors to pass from one thought to another when the connectors are reasonable but not actually reported to him.

To call this "making up a speech" is highly misleading.

I tend to think that he probably was okay with sometimes making up a speech, even though it *is* un-Lucian-like. The fact that it is unlike his other statements means (and this is how it's usually taken--rightly, I think) that speeches were put in a separate category. A weird kind of bifurcation.

But in that case it's very important to know about and recognize that bifurcation so that it is not abused and used to "spread around" doubt to other parts of the work, to reportage generally, and to short sayings that are not even speeches.

And tolerance for invention was *not accepted by everybody*. Polybius had a stricter rule, and if you see the quotation from Thucydides, you see that he *really* wanted sources. As Hemer says, the most interesting division is between historians who invented speeches out of whole cloth and those who had to have sources--either their own memories or someone else's.

Back to Lucian, one of the authors he makes fun of had a centurion give a speech over someone's body, and what Lucian laughs at him about is the implausibility of the speech--its inappropriateness to the occasion.

Likes: "Licona does not quote in his entire book a single one of the five separate passages from How to Write History that emphasize the importance of historical accuracy and truthfulness. This despite the fact that he refers six separate times (pp. 90, 110, 150, 185, 191, 196) to his own highly dubious interpretation of paragraph 55, about writing in a connected fashion."

I am sure, Lydia, you have addressed the issue I am bringing up in some other post, but I must ask: how does Licona's understanding of Lucian impact the gospel writers given that Lucian lived after the gospel writers (unless we go back to the 19th century dating of the New Testament gospels)? If the Gospels were finished in the first-century (or early second-century for a more progressive dating) but Lucian who lived in the mid-second century, how can this be used to determine how the Gospel writers "connect events synthetically" or "include synthetic chronological links" as Licona is declaring. Doesn't he have to show a necessary connection between Lucian and the Gospel writers, which is chronologically impossible given that Lucian post-dates the Gospels.

It's just supposed to be part of the "atmosphere of the time." His idea is that Lucian is generally part of showing the ancient atmosphere. Oddly, I noticed one footnote using the phrase "the era" for (literally) the entire period from Thucydides to Plutarch. That is not an era. It's quite a few hundred years.

I don't myself mind using Julius Africanus (who was interpreting the Gospels and hence wrote after them) to illustrate that "ancient people" had the kinds of views of literal truth that Licona & co. claim are "modern." I suppose by the same token Licona & co. could claim that their favorite (cherry-picked) passage in some ancient author shows that the Gospel authors' "milieu" and "audience" had such-and-such expectations of fact-altering change.

As long as one acknowledges how indirect all such arguments are, it's not really a problem per se to use authors whom the Gospel authors probably wouldn't have read. Of course both cherry-picking and blatant misinterpretation of the ancient authors in question *are* problems.

Where I *do* think a problem comes in concerning the improbability of contact and influence is with the claims that the Gospels are in a genre (namely, "Greco-Roman bioi") without any good argument for actual influence. For a highly specific genre claim like that to have any real meaning at all for what we can expect from the Gospels, I believe one *does* need to argue for influence and also for a real, conscious decision on the part of the authors to write "in" that genre.

One might also have to beef up the arguments about who actually wrote the Gospels. If Matthew the Apostle wrote Matthew, then you would have the issue of whether Matthew ever even read any of the Greco-Roman bioi or anything else in classical literature. He was a tax collector in his former life, i.e. a numerate thug. No particular reason to expect he was a Greek scholar. Mark presumably spent much of his life as a disciple of Peter, in ministry; would he have obtained a classical education in there as well? You cannot demand acknowledgement of an influence of genre literature if the author in question never read any of that literature.

That question is absolutely pertinent, Tony, and I intend to bring that out very forcefully in the forthcoming book. It is astonishing to see in one lecture that Michael Licona literally says that "Matthew would have been taught" from ancient rhetorical exercise books similar to Theon's Progymnasmata. Seriously? Matthew? One begins to think that perhaps "Matthew" in that case is a mere placeholder for, "Whoever wrote the Gospel."

Burridge's Hellenistic bias and his utter, casual disregard of any of the patristic arguments for traditional authorship are extremely striking in his famous book What Are the Gospels? He thinks John was written by a culturally diverse "Johannine community." He simply ignores authorship questions for Mark and Matthew. He does, however, state that Mark might literally have "fallen into" the so-called "genre" by accident! This is an astonishing admission, since if that was what occurred, then obviously the genre designation is of virtually no relevance *whatsoever* in deciding what standards of reportage Mark was consciously working with--one way or another.

Of all four of the traditional authors, only Luke has any appreciable antecedent probability of having come into contact with Greco-Roman biographies at all, and his consciously writing "in" the genre is even still a further question. I go into all of that in detail.

As far as my own use of quotations from ancient authors such as are in this post, here is what I am planning to say:

My point is not (needless to say) that the Gospel authors had read Polybius or Thucydides, though Luke might have been acquainted with ancient historians through a more Hellenistic education, just as he might have been acquainted with Greco-Roman biographies. My point is that the fashionably sweeping statements about how ancient people thought made by Burridge are simply false and that we have a large amount of evidence for a high value placed upon literal truth by ancient authors.

The peace, which after the winning of Euboea was concluded for thirty years, lasted fourteen years. But in the fifteenth year, being the forty-eighth of the priesthood of Chrysis in Argos, Aenesias being then ephor at Sparta and Pythadorus, archon of Athens, having then two months of his government to come, in the sixth month after the battle at Potidaea and in the beginning of the spring, three hundred and odd Thebans led by Pythangelus the son of Phyleides and Diemporus the son of Onetoridas, Boeotian rulers, about the first watch of the night entered with their arms into Plataea, a city of Boeotia and confederate of the Athenians

Thucydides, Peloponnesian War 2.2. It is very similar to Luke 3:1-2, placing the main event in the larger context of six simultaneous events.

Luke could well be giving a nod to Thucydides as he begins the main part of his Gospel.

This connection has been made in a number of commentaries.

Tim, I seem to have seen the technique used in plenty of stuff besides Thucydides. At a time when there was no standard calendar or standard year between widely diverse nations, it stands to reason that if naming "X year of ruler 1" nails down the time for the benefit of all those who have ever had contact with THAT nation, then naming it against 6 different rulers will have the benefit of placing it for many more peoples, and do so in a way that further narrows it down to a smaller time frame than a 12-month period. So it wasn't a technique that would be of service only to Greeks. Though it does suggest an author who is at least read in the common literature of the day.

Tony,
It suggests, at minimum, an author who is at least read in the common HISTORICAL literature of the day. I am fairly sure that there are no known authors earlier than Thucydides that used specifically 6 contemporaneous happenings to date an event. It is possible that Luke is giving a nod to a historian who gave a nod to Thucydides, but I don't know that this is more likely than that Luke tipped his stylistic hat to Thucydides directly.
The Greek in Luke 3:1-2 (and also of the prologue in Luke 1:1-4) is more elevated in style than much of the Gospel (which itself has the best Greek of the four Gospels).

I always have a strong feeling of encountering Luke himself when I read those verses in Luke 3. It may or may not be a generic hat-tip to Thucydides. Luke is the only one of the traditional authors who may plausibly have had a Hellenistic education. If so, obviously, it's a hat-tip to the idea of historical accuracy that was associated with Thucydides. Luke 1-2 have a somewhat different "feel," and they are two of the chapters in the Gospels for which I think there are really fairly strong signs of another written source. For the most part I'm dubious of source criticism, though of course a comparison of Mark with Matthew and Luke and of Matthew and Luke with each other certainly raises questions of possible literary dependence of some kind. But Luke 1-2 actually "sound" at points somewhat unusual for Luke. (Though not the similarly Luke-styled reference to Augustus's decree.) Anyway, Luke 3:1-2 have this wonderfully abrupt feeling of transition to them. It's like, "Luke, old buddy, nice to see you!"

If Luke *is* hat-tipping Thucydides there, he's doing so because it fits his own sense of historical precision and is appropriate to it. Rather like a Thomist hat-tipping St. Thomas.

Lydia, I am in large agreement with your original post.
Luke is not an eye-witness and mentions other written accounts preceding his in Luke 1:1-4. Luke 1-2 is different from the rest of the Gospel--it is more Septuagintal, and Mary may have been one of Luke's oral sources for this portion of the Gospel.

The Gospels of Luke and John give us the authors' own reasons for their respective accounts in Luke 1:1-4 and John 20:30-31. Luke is more concerned with history and producing an orderly account; John is more concerned that his audience believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. As you point out in previous posts, unless the incidents that John narrates are largely reliable it would totally undermine his purpose. However, he does not need the same level of historical order as Luke does.

The really interesting thing to me is that among the Gospels Luke has a very large section (the famous middle section) that does not even try to present itself as chronological. Presumably his sources did not always give him a definite time when some of the events happened.

In many ways John is one of the most chronological of the Gospels, perhaps *the* most chronological, despite being very selective. In this way John's narrative with its many references to feasts provides a useful kind of skeleton for outlining the ministry of Jesus as a whole.

This is slightly off-topic but still on the subject of inventing speeches and dialogue. Most scholars think that Matthew was written after the destruction of the Temple, say, AD 80. Let’s suppose that is true and also that the author was inventing dialogue. If you are writing after the fall of the Temple but your story is set earlier, then there are certain things you will naturally do. In your story the Temple will still be standing, so people can visit it and talk about it. However, talking about the Temple when the Temple is the focus of attention is one thing; talking about the Temple when the existence of the Temple is part of one’s background knowledge is something else. With that in mind consider the following:

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. (Mat. 5:23-24)
Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath. (Mat.23:16)

If the author has invented this dialogue then he has been remarkably cunning. In the first passage Jesus is making a point about the importance of resolving conflict. He illustrates the point by saying that even if you are about to offer a gift at the altar, you should stop and seek reconciliation with your brother. This is a natural example to use for someone who knows that the Temple is still standing. But what if the dialogue is invented after the Temple has been destroyed and people are still reeling from the shock? I suggest that the invention of such dialogue would be highly improbable in those circumstances.

A similar argument applies to the second example. It would be very difficult for someone living in the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction to shift mental gears in the way that would be required if he was to invent such dialogue.

Yes, the milieu of the Gospels is very much that of pre-destruction (pre-70) Judaism. It is steeped in that milieu, in fact.

Oddly enough, even John has some of this. For example, the famous phrase (famous from the perspective of dating John), "There *is* a pool" with reference to Bethesda, which no longer existed after the destruction.

From the perspective of content, *all* of the Gospels give the appearance of being written prior to the destruction, and this is even true of John. It is only because of patristic external evidence that I even date John later, and in that case I take it that phrases like "there is a pool" indicate an intimate knowledge of the pre-70 milieu and a witness's knowledge of the events related. Plus a good memory, of course.

There are many other indications of pre-70 knowledge and/or writing. For example, the very oddities of the Olivet Discourse indicate this. We ourselves are puzzled by Jesus' apparent references to the coming of the Son of man and the sending of the angels to gather the just from the four winds, apparently spoken cheek-by-jowl with clear prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem. For in hindsight we know that Jesus did not return at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. And then, given the arrangement of the material, Jesus appears to be saying, "This generation shall not pass away until all these things are fulfilled." What's up with that?

But it is, at a minimum, evidence of a pre-70 date for the Synoptics and/or great self-restraint in recording Jesus' words. For, given the degree of freedom to "apply to a new generation" (etc., etc.) alleged by many theorists, and given the appearance of a failed prophecy in Jesus' words, one would certainly *not* expect the Gospel authors to have written out the Olivet Discourse in that way.

It's not that I'm saying that Jesus definitely did say those things *in precisely that order*. It's entirely possible that Peter remembered what he said somewhat out of order or could not remember the order and remembered what he could by (what *he* thought) was the same topic of subjects that Jesus addressed on that occasion. But if so, it was scrupulously preserved by Mark, Matthew, and Luke, without any reference to the subsequent event of the destruction of Jerusalem, with no appearance of the Son of Man returning to judge the world.

Lydia,
If you have not already read these books, you may be interested in The Priority of John and Redating of the New Testament by John A. T. Robinson. It is ironic that Robinson, famous for the rather liberal Honest to God, argues for pre-70 A.D. authorship of all four gospels, but concentrating on John.
With regard to the central section of Luke (the travel narrative or the great insertion), Luke may have been heavily dependent on a particular source who organized the material thematically. Two important theories regarding this section are Craig Blomberg's view that the parables in this section (most are unique to Luke) form a chiasm; and the theory by Christopher Evans, James Sanders and others that this section is a commentary on the laws in Deuteronomy 12 through 26. I can't give more details because I have not studied this material in the last dozen years or so.

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