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The ancient Greek historian Thucydides (c.460-c.395 BC) in The History of the Peloponnesian War says this about the take on the nature of historiography.

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.

Not bad for a guy with no eyeballs.

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 biblical writers typically do not report as eyewitness (with exceptions to be sure) or even near eyewitnesses, but decades or centuries later, often relying on earlier traditions (written and oral) that were more fluid than set in granite.

The Bible exhibits the same general phenomenon 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 of the early Jesus movement 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. We are seeing history crafted, not objectively reported.

[The original version of this post first appeared in August 2012. I explore a few examples of history writing in the Bible in The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014)]
Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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  • Neil Godfrey says:

    An interesting companion post alongside my own on the classicist Professor A. J. Woodman’s explanation of how Thucydides “made up” his details about the Athenian plague — according to what one would normally expect to have occurred, along with some flourishes inspired by the poets.

  • Neil Godfrey says:

    An interesting companion post alongside my own on the classicist Professor A. J. Woodman’s explanation of how Thucydides “made up” his details about the Athenian plague — according to what one would normally expect to have occurred, along with some flourishes inspired by the poets.

  • Gary says:

    The treatment of Scripture is one of the reasons I often feel third party between preacher and audience.

    Despite these ambiguities of historical writing, I often find that I can better be in dialog with authors, redactors, and their situations than I can with pulpit and pew tangibly right in front of me.

    I think many preachers believe they need to dumb things and make it simple, clear, and certain if not to relay things into a set of reproducible steps to achieve some sort of desired result.

    • And to press the point a bit further, I would say that this is how you write good history in the ancient Near East. A dedication to recording the specific events as they happened objectively is just not anyone’s goal at that time. A dedication to communicating the meaning of the “history” is.

      • 382fan says:

        If we are honest, simply recording events still isn’t really the goal. The victor gets to write the history books. It is just that with modern technology, the loser can often find an outlet for their side, too.

  • Gary says:

    The treatment of Scripture is one of the reasons I often feel third party between preacher and audience.

    Despite these ambiguities of historical writing, I often find that I can better be in dialog with authors, redactors, and their situations than I can with pulpit and pew tangibly right in front of me.

    I think many preachers believe they need to dumb things and make it simple, clear, and certain if not to relay things into a set of reproducible steps to achieve some sort of desired result.

  • Darrin Hunter says:

    Somehow, I didn’t expect a lesson in textual history as well as toilet training!
    Ha!

  • Skeptical Christian says:

    Somehow, I didn’t expect a lesson in textual history as well as toilet training!
    Ha!

  • Tim says:

    “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.”

    I remember reading something to the effect that in medical studies using brain scans, they’ve essentially shown that every time we remember/ recall something, our brains alter it in some significant way.

  • Tim says:

    “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.”

    I remember reading something to the effect that in medical studies using brain scans, they’ve essentially shown that every time we remember/ recall something, our brains alter it in some significant way.

  • Phil Ledgerwood says:

    And to press the point a bit further, I would say that this is how you write good history in the ancient Near East. A dedication to recording the specific events as they happened objectively is just not anyone’s goal at that time. A dedication to communicating the meaning of the “history” is.

    • 382fan says:

      If we are honest, simply recording events still isn’t really the goal. The victor gets to write the history books. It is just that with modern technology, the loser can often find an outlet for their side, too.

  • E-Stu says:

    Pete, what are your thoughts on the New Testament writers’ interpretation of Israel’s history? Do you think they understood it as we moderns have come to understand it? If not, what are the implications for Christianity today?

    • Pete E. says:

      E-Stu, please refer to anything I have ever written ? All kidding aside, Inhave a chapter on this in Inspiration and Incarnation and also The Bible Tells Me So.

      • E-Stu says:

        Haha. Read TBTMS and I&I is on the list! I know the past served the present with the Old Testament writers, and will flip back through TBTMS for New Testament writers. Thanks, Pete!!

  • E-Stu says:

    Pete, what are your thoughts on the New Testament writers’ interpretation of Israel’s history? Do you think they understood it as we moderns have come to understand it? If not, what are the implications for Christianity today?

    • Pete E. says:

      E-Stu, please refer to anything I have ever written ? All kidding aside, Inhave a chapter on this in Inspiration and Incarnation and also The Bible Tells Me So.

  • Paul D. says:

    I’m reminded of Acts 1, when Peter — who is ostensibly addressing the other disciples and fellow Jewish believers in Jerusalem — has to explain to his audience in Greek what the meaning of an Aramaic word is. Here as elsewhere in the NT, the dialogue is invented by the author and aimed at Greek-speaking readers, but placed in the mouths of the characters in the story to make it seem authentic (as long as you don’t look too closely).

    • Daniel Fisher says:

      i have to respectfully differ w/ your understanding of that passage…. you may be right in general, but i don’t think you can prove it by that text… even the not-particularly-conservative NRSV translation interprets that whole section you mention as a parenthetical explanation by the narrator to the reader, rather than as part of Peter’s quote… which makes lots of sense: If we dont allow for some of these words being the narrator’s parenthetical comments you have other very bizarre difficulties, including Peter explaining to the disciples in Jerusalem that something “had become known to all the inhabitants of jerusalem”, and him beginning his speech to the crowd with the words “and there was a crowd of about a hundred and twenty there…”

      (Again, not trying here to challenge your main point, but I don’t think it is demonstrated by the example you mention.)

  • Paul D. says:

    I’m reminded of Acts 1, when Peter — who is ostensibly addressing the other disciples and fellow Jewish believers in Jerusalem — has to explain to his audience in Greek what the meaning of an Aramaic word is. Here as elsewhere in the NT, the dialogue is invented by the author and aimed at Greek-speaking readers, but placed in the mouths of the characters in the story.

    • Daniel Fisher says:

      i have to respectfully differ w/ your understanding of that passage…. you may be right in general, but i don’t think you can prove it by that text… even the not-particularly-conservative NRSV translation interprets that whole section you mention as a parenthetical explanation by the narrator to the reader, rather than as part of Peter’s quote… which makes lots of sense: If we dont allow for some of these words being the narrator’s parenthetical comments you have other very bizarre difficulties, including Peter explaining to the disciples in Jerusalem that something “had become known to all the inhabitants of jerusalem”, and him beginning his speech to the crowd with the words “and there was a crowd of about a hundred and twenty there…”

      (Again, not trying here to challenge your main point, but I don’t think it is demonstrated by the example you mention.)

  • ajl says:

    Sort of (exactly) like Luke:

    Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you?

    If ever there was a time for Luke to pull out his inerrancy card, this was it. Instead, like Thucydides, he did the best he could, with the information he compiled. And, he tells us that up front. Basically, the best he could do was to write an orderly account.

    Your post really helps nail down what these writers were doing, and therefore gives us such great insight into what the Evangelists were doing. Today’s historians are horrified at this, but we need to realize that these were standard practices back then. Nobody was lying or being disingenuous, they were doing their best to communicate to their audience. And through Luke, omissions and all, we get a very good view of who Jesus was.

  • ajl says:

    Sort of (exactly) like Luke:

    Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you?

    If ever there was a time for Luke to pull out his inerrancy card, this was it. Instead, like Thucydides, he did the best he could, with the information he compiled. And, he tells us that up front. Basically, the best he could do was to write an orderly account.

    Your post really helps nail down what these writers were doing, and therefore gives us such great insight into what the Evangelists were doing. Today’s historians are horrified at this, but we need to realize that these were standard practices back then. Nobody was lying or being disingenuous, they were doing their best to communicate to their audience. And through Luke, omissions and all, we get a very good view of who Jesus was.

  • Daniel Fisher says:

    Alternate Translation: “Thucydides kept as close as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used.” Sounds a bit different depending on how you spin it.

    And sure, for what it is worth, this is hardly surprising; many OT conversations often (obviously) give the general sense, paraphrases, summaries, and the like of conversations. And for anyone who recognizes that Jesus’ Aramaic words were recorded in Greek (except for those few transliterated exceptions), we recognize that the general and interpreted sense of the words is recorded, and not verbatim transcripts. Not to mention obvious summaries of his preaching and the like.

    But regarding your conclusion, I must demur: a paraphrase, a summary, or a “general sense” can still be quite objectively true and accurate (or equally objectively false and inaccurate, or somewhere inbetween). Sure there are witnesses that “craft history”; but this need not be the case in every instance. Otherwise, shall we accuse every courtroom witness of “crafting history” rather than giving an “objective report” if anything but a word-for word verbatim report is given?

  • Pete E. says:

    Court room analogy? Biblical writers were eyewitnesses? But I suppose if this helps you.

    • Daniel Fisher says:

      Not an analogy, I’m pointing out the logical consequence – i.e., respectfully challenging what i see as a false dichotomy: that something must either be word-for-word verbatim account, or it is “crafting history.” I mean only that the standard you seem to have set would require tossing out even eyewitness accounts from the courtroom if they are not verbatim quotes.

      And I was not above claiming biblical writers were eyewitnesses (although I’m sure we can agree that SOME things in the Bible are clearly claimed as firsthand, eyewitness accounts – e.g., “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face…” etc.) i wouldnt care if something (whether biblical or in everyday life) is a fifth-hand account; If it remains an accurate summary or paraphrase of what someone said, then it remains “true”, and need not necessarily be an invention or in any way “made up”.

      point remians: if anything less than a verbatim account is considering “crafting history”, then that accusation can be leveled against any and every courtroom witness that gives anything less than a word-for-word account.

  • 382fan says:

    “Make things up” is hardly the same thing as “giving an orderly account” as told by eye witnesses. If Luke (or any of the Biblical writers) were just “making things up”, then what they have to say is worth about as much as Homer or Shakespeare, and about as relevant.

  • 382fan says:

    “Make things up” is hardly the same thing as “giving an orderly account” as told by eye witnesses. If Luke (or any of the Biblical writers) were just “making things up”, then what they have to say is worth about as much as Homer or Shakespeare, and about as relevant.

  • Crystal Lubinsky says:

    This is an instance of creative history making as highlighted by just one historian – he doesn’t ‘make it up’ in as much as he ‘fills in some gaps with expected and presumably accepted reactions, ideas, or words’. It is more fun to compare two ancient historians’ accounts on the same event/person – then one sees how much they trail off from the core plot and add in helpful character building or ideological content for their audience, whom they hoped to inspire. Constantine (Eusebius vs Lactantius) is a good read for this – ta!

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