“Historians Have to Make Things Up” says Thucydides.

Why the four gospels and the accounts in Acts may not be quite what they seem. Peter Enns (American Evangelical biblical scholar and theologian) explains why: 

200px-Thucydides-bust-cutout_ROMOver at Mere Student, John Oliff posted on the Greek historian Thucydides’s (c.460-c.395 BC) take on the nature of historiography.

Sounds like a real snoozer, but grab a cup of coffee if you have to and read this quote from The History of the Peloponnesian War.

In this history I have made use of set speeches some of which were delivered just before and others during the war. I have found it difficult to remember the precise words used in the speeches which I listened to myself and my various informants have experienced the same difficulty; so my method has been, while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.

Translation: When recording speeches, Thucydides made things up that he felt fit the overall picture.

Remember, Thucydides is famous for his attention to detail and desire to get things right. But even anal-retentive Thucydides and others who were witnesses to speeches had difficulty remembering the words, and who can fault them (I can’t reproduce a sentence I spoke half an hour ago).

In order to write his history, therefore, Thucydides had to make stuff up that he felt adhered closely to the “general sense” of what was said, what he thought was “called for by each situation.”

What Thucydides says here can be extended to include events as well. Different witnesses remember events differently–particularly complex events that extend over lengthy periods of time.

In fact, we all do this. Every time we “remember” the past we are in a sense inventing it, not out of whole cloth of course, but by filling in portions, leaving things out, etc., in keeping with what we think (often unconsciously) is “called for by each situation.”

It doesn’t take much effort to extend this to another piece of ancient historiography, the Bible, both the Old or New Testament–and the matter is complicated by the fact that eye witness accounts in the Bible are few and far between (even if reporting of other peoples’s eye witness accounts may be more frequent).

The Bible exhibits the same kind of thing that Thucydides bluntly confesses:dialogue is invented and events are reported in a manner that is in keeping with what the writers felt was “called for.”  That’s what we see in the four Gospels, the accounts in Acts, not to mention Israel’s extended narrative account of its history, which includes two very different versions of the monarchic period (the Deuteronomistic History of Joshua through 2 Kings and the later revision of that history in 1 and 2 Chronicles.)

When we speak of the Bible as “historical,” I say “sure”–as long as we keep Thucydides’s words in mind.

 

Reposted from Patheos



Categories: Bible, Biblical scholarship, History

17 replies

  1. A good example is the so-called “trial of Stephen” in the Book of Acts. If it actually happened, then the author goofed on what Stephen actually said (since Stephen makes basic errors in recounting the stories of the Tanakh) or the author simply made the whole thing up.

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  2. Enns is no longer Evangelical. He was fired from Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia in 2008 for his heresies. He may still claim he is “evangelical”; I don’t know; but form what I have seen, after his firing; he has gone progressively more and more liberal.

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    • Enns certainly calls himself “evangelical” – follow the link. But your crass ad hominem attacks on him betray your failure to engage with the article and the evidence:

      ‘The Bible exhibits the same kind of thing that Thucydides bluntly confesses:dialogue is invented and events are reported in a manner that is in keeping with what the writers felt was “called for.” That’s what we see in the four Gospels, the accounts in Acts.’

      This conclusion is widely accepted in NT scholarship, conservative and liberal.

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  3. Ken, in light of what Thucydides says about memory in writing historical accounts, in what sense do you belive the gospels are inspired?

    Were they supernaturally inspired to remember every exact word Jesus used to formulate sentences? Or did they write down from an oral tradition about the sayings and teachings of Jesus?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You guys are funny.

    Your own scriptures are just as bad – if not worse – than the christian ones. There is absolutely no evidence that what your “traditions” record were ever actually said by mohammed. All they record are traditions that may have been made up to suit political needs at any given timedceades and centuries after the 7th century..

    You have no documents from mohammed’s lifetime to support any of the traditions which means that whatever you believe about mohammed may just be ad hoc attributions to him that empowered various rulers.

    Plus, even major historical claims made in your scriptures have no historical support – notably there is no archaeological evidence that there existed a pagan culture in Mecca of the type described in your “revelation”. There’s not even any evidence that Mecca existed the way the quran describes it in the 7th century.

    I’m shocked by the special pleading here – your own faith is based on supposed oral traditions which you are here claiming are unreliable and unlikely to reflect the actual events as they took place.

    Gullible much?

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  5. poitierfrance

    Why did you presume I thought you were Muslim? My comment was not directed at you at all.

    The post is on a muslim blog that presumes that the hadith are reliable whilst accusing that christian scriptures are unreliable – I think that neither can be trusted.

    But the fact remains, this post applies to Islamic texts and traditions as well – hence the implicit special pleading is funny.

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  6. Luke also made no errors. Either in Acts or his gospel. He was an inspired historian living close in time or even experiencing the events he was reporting. If anyone disagrees with him they, not Luke, are wrong.

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    • That’s ridiculous. I noticed you didn’t actually respond to my assertion of an error in Acts regarding the “testimony of Stephen”. If Luke is right, then the Tanakh is wrong. If the Tanakh is right, then Luke is wrong. You’re screwed either way.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Also, if Luke was “living close in time or even experiencing the events he was reporting”, then he didn’t need to be “inspired”. But if he needed to be “inspired”, then his credibility as a “historian” is called into question. Why would a knowledgeable “historian” need “inspiration” to correctly report the events in question?

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  7. Faiz,

    ” If Luke is right, then the Tanakh is wrong. If the Tanakh is right, then Luke is wrong. You’re screwed either way.”

    >>>>>> Go ahead and put your money where your mouth is. You have to prove your case first.

    “Also, if Luke was “living close in time or even experiencing the events he was reporting”, then he didn’t need to be “inspired”. ”

    >>>>>> If it was the will of God for all the writers of the NT to be inspired then it must also have been necessary I guess. Unless there is some way for us to know otherwise. How would we set about finding that out?

    2 Peter 1

    King James Bible

    19 We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: 20 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. 21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

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    • “>>>>>> Go ahead and put your money where your mouth is. You have to prove your case first.”

      I already did that. I said that Luke makes basic mistakes regarding Stephen’s “testimony”. As Reza Aslan states:

      “The speech, which is obviously Luke’s creation, is riddled with the most basic errors: it misidentifies the burial site of the great patriarch Jacob, and it inexplicably claims that an angel gave the law to Moses when even the most uneducated Jew in Palestine would have known it was God himself who gave Moses the law” (Aslan, op. cit., p. 168).

      “If it was the will of God for all the writers of the NT to be inspired then it must also have been necessary I guess. Unless there is some way for us to know otherwise. How would we set about finding that out?”

      That’s why the whole idea of “inspiration” disproves the assertion that the author was a “reliable historian”. If Luke needed to be “inspired”, then he was not a good historian from the start. If, however, he had to do “research” to write his gospel, then he was not “inspired”.

      “2 Peter 1

      King James Bible

      19 We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: 20 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. 21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”

      2 Peter is a forgery. It only further proves that the notion of “inspiration” is a Christian invention.

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  8. Jacob did not want to be buried in Macpelah but at Schechem where he dug a grave ready for his burial.

    Gen 50v5

    My father made me swear, saying, Lo, I die: in my grave which I have digged for me in the land of Canaan, there shalt thou bury me. Now therefore let me go up, I pray thee, and bury my father, and I will come again.

    Jacob did not dig out Macpelah as it was a cave. His bones were left there until they could be transported to the final resting place of his choice. This was common knowledge but the final burial was not recorded in scripture.

    As far as the giving of the law by the angel the NT can add further revelations to the old testament such as details of this kind.

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    • Where is your proof for any of this? You are just making assumptions without any evidence. That is very dishonest of you. You have essentially proven Thucydides’ statement.

      What we have here is a clear contradiction. In Acts 7, Stephen says that Jacob was buried in Shechem. But Genesis 50:13, the same chapter you referred to, shows that Jacob was buried at Machpelah. It was actually Joseph who was buried at Shechem (Joshua 24:32). It is an error either on the part of Stephen or on the part of Luke. You need to just accept that.

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