“Historians Have to Make Things Up” says Thucydides.

Over 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.

Thanks to Oliff for highlighting this quote.

  • http://www.thinkhardthinkwell.com Benj

    I was speaking about this with John a few weeks ago, and the first thing I thought of when I came across quotation is the Chronicler’s insertion of various psalms into the stories of David and Solomon. These psalms may very well have been the types of song that were such at those important moments in the monarchy, but we can’t know. But the Chronicler surely thinks that those psalms were what should have been used at those moments in the stories.

  • http://www.thinkhardthinkwell.com Benj

    *came across the Thucydides quotation

  • eric kunkel

    But unlike Thucydides, I thought you had the original autographs in your cellar back east.


    • peteenns


  • eric kunkel

    Seriously, variants recognized. Could it be that we have just what God wants us to have. Cannot we retain something like historicity, just like we have have real vellum and ink and still have a special document, a document that claims theo-pneusticity.

    If one of Jesus hearers transcribed, even recorded digitally some of his sayings- that would not be the end of scholarly work on some of those hard sayings. Some speech in the NT is clearly perceived, perhaps by those with ears to hear – the same utterance is dismissed as thunder.

    We can learn from Thucydides or Herodotus and should. Sometimes overarching principles must be mastered, so they can be put aside by a true master.

    My take on master historians reminds me of the anecdote I was reminded of about Neil Armstrong yesterday. The Apollo computer was going to drop them in a pile of rocks.

    He has to manually grab the stick and with 25 seconds of gas in the tank land the Lunar Module on the even ground of Sea of Galilee, I mean Tranquility. Only an uber Test Pilot, Right Stuff, aeronautical superguy, with all the training could do that.

    So to you, Thucydides, Armstrong: I tip my hat to you. And even ground.

    I know you all will stay out of the rocks and the water.

    (BTW, almost ALL historians get accused or somehow in trouble for misquoting, misfootnoting, plagiarizing, redundancy, excising etc. Thucydides, is it not part of the job description!)

  • Nijay Gupta

    Quite right, Pete. I offer much the same kind of information about the Gospels which I learned from the great ancient-genre based research of Craig Keener in his commentary on the Gospel of John.

  • eric kunkel

    I know how hellenized we all are. Your basement probably not only is full of the remnants of of the Cairo geniza, but also some friezes absconded from the ME during the recent strife there. We know about your special connections to historiography.

    What what about your God-Man anology from the Innerancy book? That bestows that “God-breathed” quality upon it, does it not? So as we use the tools of the historians will we not forever be nailing jello to the wall. Won’t the Bible be like Jesus, disappearing in in Jerusalem and appearing on the Emmaus Rd. and next in the Golan Hgts. Or to put it another way -

    ?Does not the Bible contain an explicit Bibiology that says, yes explain me. But you will always be doing so with Newtonian tools, as genius as they may be, in an Boson paradigm.

    Do you know guys that diagram a book, like on a huge whiteboard. And it extends around 3 sides of a conference room. And it is all in Greek and all the clauses that follow and where the paragraphs and divisions really are. And then they change their mind. And all those erasures!

    Some don’t erase so well. And some are slow to change their paradigm, I think alot of it is how whiteboards really do not erase so well after just a day or two ….

    Maybe these whiteboards drive historiography more than we know. And maybe Holy Writ has a special character whereby “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God.”

    Eric Kunkel

  • eric kunkel

    Pete you say “When we speak of the Bible as “historical,” I say “sure”–as long as we keep Thucydides’s words in mind.” Previously you have reminded us that the Bible is Midrashic.

    It is many things.

    There is Incarnation/Inspiration, right. Merits a book.

    That is why I brought up what the Bible says about itself: not that proof texts can be taken in isolation, but the Inspiration it claims is theopneustic or God-Breathed and we have to reckon with that.

    And we are surely being ahistorical if we use Inspiration the way it used today, post the Romantic Era. Then we are left with Wordsworth or Leaves of Grass.


    • peteenns

      Eric, this whole discussion, in my opinion, fits well within an incarnational model of Scripture (as well as an accomodationist or adoptionist model). I do not, and to my mind never have, thought of Luke inventing dialogue, or Matthew employing midrash, or Israel’s historians describing their history with mythic embellishment a problem. It is what it is.

  • http://www.thebarainitiative.com Randy

    Dr. Enns,

    I have been amazed by the number of interpretations this quote has received. I have seen those use it to suggest that things are invented out of whole clothe, freely and without care (which I don’t get) and others use it to suggest that no invention went on whatsoever (which I equally don’t get).

    I’m a student of the NT, so in reading Acts I see how this might apply to a number of speeches and discussions. It’s all fine and dandy to say that Paul informed Luke of the content of the speeches and certain dialogues, but there are other times where we have to admit Luke used this common historiographic freedom (for example, the encounter between Festus and Agrippa).

    I simply find it difficult to reconcile the inerrantist explanations: Festus informed Luke of the meeting and the exchanged words, someone overheard the discussion, or that the Spirit had just had Luke guess correctly (which, as historians go, is an unfalsifiable claim). As a former inerrantist (very committed to harmonization), I have to wonder what sort of salvific power we are giving our own ability to explain away difficulties. I once asked a seminary professor who was upset I was going to Asbury if he thought Christianity rose and fell the ability to explain away contradictions…he said yes.

    Tis unfortunate.

  • eric kunkel

    I concur with you, as I mostly do, at least broadly. Contrawise, with Randy above harmonizing can lead to some real stretches, in my view. (Unrelatedly perhaps, I find books like columnar harmonies of the Gospels great reading – for lining up pericopess, etc)

    Eyewitness accounts are actually more likely verisimilitudinous when the witnesses in the dock offer their own perspective. If everyone says the same thing we should wonder if a conspiracy is afoot!

    But I would hold out when we counterbalance Kings/Chronicles, the Gospels, different doctrinal emphases of NT themes by authors – in all such cases we have to have some stomach for paradox and our own finitude.

    I think this is also true for what I keep on repeating, on and on, with boring, repetitive, redundancy: We also have a paradox when we approach Biblical Studies Historically and Theologically, right?

    We cannot simply explain away alternative accounts with facile harmonization, with “The Handbook of Bible Difficulties”, which I have somewhere behind me. On the other hand, we have to take seriously what the Bible says about itself, including that it is Inspired in the strong sense I have reiterated above. Like Jesus, Very God of Very God and Behold, The Man.

    So the Bible is a book open to all academic or intellectual reflection. And it remains Holy Scripture.


    Open your Hymnal to #347. 347.

  • http://www.rekindle.co.za James

    A while ago I was thinking over this problem. I find that the conservative evangelicals I hang out with (I’m cool like that) are repulsed by the idea that Gospel authors could have written under inspiration and yet just be writing roughly what Jesus said. So I invented three retellings of a conversation to try to explain the problem: http://www.rekindle.co.za/content/lying-jews-and-art-biblical-narrative/

  • eric kunkel

    Without facile harmonizing (and I have just thought about the texts from memory, without the help of greater lights – .)

    At first thought, the centurion was probably speaking Latin, since he was doing a job – unlike John Wayne in the movie. So how that would be expressed in the gospelers language, well that has to be considered, I would think. And whole setting was dramatic, an unusual death: that is the context, with many out of the ordinary occurrences. And he may have said several things -

    Meanwhile, during this dramatic death, not his garden-variety execution, other people may have said unrecorded things: the women, anyone close to Jesus who had not run away, and his own subordinate soldiers. And he may have need to speak to them, perhaps shifting to Aramaic and back to Latin.

    From my line of work I do know something about executions. Even then there would be procedures of some sort. The Romans did things “decently and in order.” This is why we still have there roads, etc.

    My point is that he would not have primarily been trying to formulate a theological pronouncement. Pilate had big political problems. The Centurion must have had a great deal going on.

    But I believe he said these things. And probably more is my point. What do you all think he said?

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  • http://theholyhuddle.blogspot.com Tim Collins

    This is good evidence that a careful historian of the day employed interpolation consistent with what he already believed the interpolated dialog to contain.

    If I am trying to recall a speech I do my best, but must interpolate. On the other end of the spectrum, if I am trying to recall a recipe or even a medical treatment, I will take more care.

    I wonder, then, how well Thucydides’ practice can be assumed to hold when the subject is a religious one, and is written by a true believer?

    It’s clear from comparison of the gospels that they weren’t quoting Jesus or anyone else verbatim. But some will assert they were aiming for greater precision in language than Thucydides, given the immense implications wording can have in theological speech.

    Would that person be right?