Minimalism and Ancient Historiography

In a recent discussion about the esteemed Jim West’s erudite explanation of minimalism over at Bible and Interpretation, J. R. Daniel Kirk wrote the following (towards the end of an excellent blogessay):

But before signing up for the guild of biblical minimalists, I’d want to ask if the bifurcation and choosing of sides between historical maximalism and theological minimalism isn’t, itself, a function of the same modern tendency that brought us the concern with the a-theological historical in the first place? Before we loop Luke into the cause, it seems important to ask if, as an ancient historian, he had a more mixed category of history and theology that makes his work, to his mind, thoroughly both–even while it undermines the modern concerns with historiography as a discipline?

And if so, then that brings up the question of how different Luke is from ancient historians. If it is a matter of quantity of God- (or other propaganda-) overlay rather than quality of historiography, it seems that what we “know” from the Gospels might be not so different from anything else we might “know” about the ancient world. It’s an honest question (not merely rhetorical): how much more against the grain to we have to read the Gospels to get at “what really happened” than we’d have to read against the grain of Herodotus, Plutarch, or Julius Caesar?

These two paragraphs symbolize, perhaps without Daniel’s knowledge, the troubles within the academe.  In addressing these (rather astute) questions, I hope to bring some clarity to a position I have become quite familiar with, that is, the subject of ancient historiography.  After all, can Luke really be considered an ancient historian?  And can we, after Jim’s discussion of the subject, as the chroniclers of the past, really lump Luke together with Julius Caesar, Herodotus, Polybius, or for that matter Thucydides?  Herein is where the underlying problem comes to bare its teeth.

If Luke is a historian, what is it that separates him (or her, as some argue) from the rest of the Gospel authors (and, lest we forget, there are more than four)?  What is it that makes Luke a better historian than, say, the author of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas?  One might say ‘time’, but really this is a weak argument.  Arrian, our most notable and worthy ancient historiographer, wrote hundreds of years after the death of Alexander the Great, yet his history of his campaigns are impressive—it is the best representation of historiography from the past (though they still fall short of today’s stands).  And I have argued before that one writing immediately after the supposed events are at times more likely to conceal or change the portrayal of the facts or events due to bias.  If it is rhetoric or theology that separates the historical value of Luke from the other Gospels, it is a well supported fact that out of all the canonical Gospels, Luke used more rhetoric than all the rest of the canonical Gospels!   One would be hardpressed to ignore the glaring influences of Roman education and classical literature on Luke.

In retrospect, Jim is correct that a Gospel, whether we can create ex nihilo such a genre sui generis or not, cannot be lumped in with other historiographical genres.  While it is certain that Thucydides fabricated more than 25% of his history (and he was an eyewitness!), his reasons for fabricating the past are different than Luke’s.  And a wise man once told me that it is naïve to assume that all historical works from the past are equal and can be judged equally.  That point, too, is relevant here.

However, I believe this is a case where the proof of the pudding is in the eating.  Can it really be said that Luke resembles an ancient historian?  S/he certainly doesn’t come close to Arrian, our ideal ancient historian.  But does it fare better when compared to others?  Putting aside the Gospel authors’ reliance upon theological, rather than historical, situations, the Gospels are written as narratives whereas the basic foundations of most Greco-Roman biographies or histories are that they are discussed.  While it may seem like a superficial thing to separate, there is a difference.  On the one hand, the Gospel author is anonymous while, on the other, one is much more confident knowing who wrote the secular histories and biographies.   To further evaluate the difference between a biography/history and a narrative (as we have them in the Gospels), some examples shall suffice.

The Greco-Roman biography of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus is not one continuous narrative but, rather, the story of his life as discussed by Philostratus.  Philostratus not only gives us his sources (personal letters and the will of Apollonius himself—whether real or not, reports about him located at shrines, Damis of Hierapolis, Maximus of Aegeae, and so forth), he analyzes his sources (why he chose not to use Moeragenes), debates points of Apollonius’ life against his sources (cf. 1.23-24), inserts anecdotes; there is no question that the story is being recounted by an individual calling himself Philostratus.  Most important, perhaps, is that Philostratus is not telling us the story to explain a theological point, but he is engaging the source material for the purpose of writing about the life of Apollonius.

Arrian, also, will always be an ideal historian from antiquity.  Comparatively, there is no competition here between him and the Gospel authors. Even as late as Arrian is, Arrian uses methods that surpass those methods used (if any were used at all) by the Gospel authors.  For example, Arrian compares his sources which consisted of eyewitness (written) accounts from Alexander’s generals (he explicitly cites his sources, even if they are now lost) and tells us why he is choosing one account of an event over the other, or why one seems to hold more weight (e.g.,  Anabasis Alexandri 3.30.4-6).  Also, many of the cited works Arrian uses are known from other contemporary, earlier and later sources.[1] In addition to Arrian’s work, there are still perhaps hundreds of extant contemporary attestations of Alexander the Great, which corroborate Arrian’s history, from manuscripts,[2] artwork (busts), coins, and inscriptions.[3] If we had this sort of data for the Gospel narratives, if they had used this sort of methodology, there would be no need to discuss the differences between minimalists and maximalists.  We’d all be maximalists and Jim West would be a founding member of the William Dever fan club (maybe)!

The Gospels, however, present a continuous story line with no pause, no discussion of method, no discussion of sources, no anecdotes, and make appeals to theological nuances like Jesus’ divine mission (Mark 1:1-3, for example).  These sorts of traits go against the grain of Greco-Roman biography and historiography.  As dubious as the historicity of Apollonius may be, his biography is actually sounder and more credible than that of the Gospels precisely because (a) we know who wrote it and (b) our narrator discusses his sources, allowing us to analyze his methods.[4] On the other hand, the hard truth is that the Gospels were not written independently, but were written for what are clearly different theological, political, and exegetical reasons, one after another over a period of at least 100 years.  They don’t name their sources, ever, but it is clear that Matthew and Luke had copies of Mark, and probably even copies of the epistles (and maybe even a few pastorals).  It is clear that this was the case, just from the internal data.  For example, some scenes which occur in two Gospels appear as a parable in another.  Some vanish entirely!  Others are so chronologically garbled that those who wish to argue for their consistency will be hard pressed to explain their contrary existence.  If the events of Jesus’ life could so easily be invented, removed, or altered so often, then it must be stated plainly that the authors of the Gospels were not interested in preserving the historical Jesus.  How could they have been?  They went out of their way to manipulate the narratives to show us a Jesus that was of their own minds, their own individual theological interests.  Following strict or even lax historiographical methods seems to be the furthest thing from their minds.  It doesn’t seem to have bothered them much at all, in fact, that they were changing the past as they saw fit—if that was indeed what they were doing.  When thinking of an example of such an occurrence in the text, the fig tree is one that comes to mind almost immediately.

Luke, though he opened his/her Gospel with a historiographical-style preface, follows the exact trend that Matthew followed (granted, with different results) once he started the narrative itself. We do not have these methods because Luke was not interested in history, nor were any other Gospel authors, and if Luke resembles a historian it is only because s/he was imitating the chroniclers of the books, those of which s/he had access to, of the Hebrew Bible (or, for those who are going to be fussy about it, the Septuagint).  But neither Luke, nor Mark, nor Matthew, were writing historiographies.  They were writing theologies.  Whether they understood them as historical or not has its own implications which deserve attention.  But this does bring this discussion back around to the question at hand:  How does one accurately determine what we can know about the past from ancient literary (term used reluctantly) evidence?

I believe, though, that this is a question that we, as the preservers of society’s memories, should be asking about every text we look at.  Instead of clumping Luke and Mark and Paul in the “more likely true because we believe it” category, we examine each text as it stands against the weight of the data we already have (mainly against primary sources) and, if such an instance were to occur that we lack primary evidence, the text itself becomes the artifact.  The text then should be scrutinized, as one might critical look at any text from an educated individual schooled in rhetoric and the art of imitation, to determine its veracity, it’s value—whether historical or theological (or, if the case may be, both—such as with Josephus or Philo where they contain theological, political, and historical value).  Arrian has been shown to be generally accurate (of course, he is far from perfect), and as a result we can say with some level of certainty that his history represents the best data we currently have on the life of Alexander the Great outside of primary evidence (in fact, we can say that Arrian’s history is in some cases just as good as primary evidence, because he is so reliable).  Similarly, we can say that Cicero—despite all his crankiness and his hateful polemics—represents excellent historical attestation for Caesar.  After all, he was an enemy of the man and his words have more value because of it.  We can say, simply from accounts of Caesar from other people, that he crossed the Rubicon.  And we can say that with a very high level of certainty, a level which does not exist for anything in the Gospel narrative—not even the crucifixion.

Again, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.  Neither Arrian, nor Cicero, were writing theological treatises, or theological narratives.  They intended to chronicle the accounts for other reasons.  Thucydides, as well, is very clear about his intentions and, unlike Luke (who states his/her intentions but does not follow through with them), remains very consistent throughout his history of the Peloponnesian war.  Even if his speeches are fiction, his geography screwy, his polemics hyperbolic, we can trust some of what he says because it can be verified through other means.  He was not writing a theological essay but a polemical history.  Therein rests the difference.

That is not to say that I feel that Luke has no historical value.  There is historical value in even Lucian’s Philopseudes and his True Stories.  Even when Lucian writes “But my lying is far more honest than theirs, for though I tell the truth in nothing else, I shall at least be truthful in saying that I am a liar” (Vera Hist., 1.4), he cannot get away from the fact that he is a product of the period.  He is a result of history as much as he is a producer of it.  However, we must once more accept what Jim has to say; “what”, “who”, and “when” are not the questions we should be asking about theological texts.  These are just the wrong questions all together.  Now, whether or not one considers the Gospels to be purely theological is yet debated (I tend to think they are).  Once one can establish the intentions and genre of the literary piece, deciding what questions that needs to be asked will come easier.


[1] While I hold Arrian’s methods high, they fall short of modern standards.  Even though Arrian is a step above the typical ancient historian, his work is not perfect.  He openly equates “interesting” stories with “probable” stories and, as one of his reasons for choosing Ptolemy as a source, states that it is because he was a King and “it is more disgraceful for a king to tell lies than anyone else.”  (Anabasis Alexandri, Preface 1-3) If a “good” ancient historian like Arrian can still succumb to these sorts of biases, one should be concerned with how much bias effects those ancient historians of lesser quality.

[2] The authors preserved who were contemporaries of Alexander and mention him or facts about him include: Isocrates, Demosthenes, Aeschines, Hyperides, Dinarchus, Theocritus, Theophrastus, and Menander.

[3] Not only are there inscriptions dedicated to Alexander the Great and his victories which are contemporaneous to him, several inscriptions commissioned by Alexander himself still exist; e.g., there is one at the British Museum from Priene in Asia Minor, dedicated to Athena Polias.  See B.F. Cook, Greek inscriptions (1987), p. 21-22.

[4] To be perfectly clear here, that does not mean that we take Philostratus’ word on everything, or even most things, however it does mean that the two types of literature are opposed, rather than equatable.

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