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Speech in the Bible? Pah!

Speech in the Bible? Pah! July 8, 2021

Can you remember what you said last week? You know, in any conversation? Can you remember what you said last month? How about last year? How about ten years ago? Can you remember your conversations from ten years ago other than general themes of only the most pertinent ones?

Can you remember the conversations of others? What they said, maybe ten years ago?

The Bible is chock-full of speech. I mean, there is loads of speech in the Bible. Fun fact: there are ninety-three women who feature in the Bible and they deliver only 1.1% of the speech…

For example, considering speech in the Bible, about 30% of Acts is speech.

In Greek and Roman histories, speech was considered an integral part of such projects. But they didn’t write particularly accurate history, as we well know. But they were, at least, trying to write (to some degree) in the genre of history. The Bible is not a history book, in terms of genre.

Here, in Is the Bible Fact or Fiction? An Introduction to Biblical Historiography, Barbara Organ observes (p. 62-63):

Historians thought it essential to provide speeches for the major personages. According to ancient standards, speeches should consist of what a person said or what they would most likely have said in the circumstances. Some writers created speeches freely but others were opposed to such invention. Evan Thucydides, generally considered to be the founder of objective history writing, admitted to creative interpretation of what his historical characters said. The principle was to recreate as nearly as possible what was the most apt for the situation. Luke probably had the classical model to call on, but he also had the example of the Old Testament, in his case the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint). There we find significant speeches in the mouths of key figures, most particularly Moses: The Book of Deuteronomy is organized as the speech of Moses to the Israelites in the wilderness…with a few narrative sections. Speeches of various kinds occur also in the historical books, and especially in the Deuterocanonical books of the Maccabees…

Luke follows the usual characteristics of ancient speeches, using typical rhetorical style and adapting the speech to its audience, but the content reveals Luke’s theology and probably also reflects the preaching of the early church. Through the speech, Luke interprets the events he is narrating…. Peter and James are provided with speeches that faithfully reflect the position of the church on these issues, which is how speeches work in ancient histories.

Indeed, as even biblical scholar and theologian Peter Enns points out:

[R]ead 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.

The best ancient historian we know made stuff up when doing the actual genre of objective history, which the Bible is not.

I would take this whole lot further in that, particularly if we accept the consensus view in biblical academia that most of Genesis and Exodus etc. was written some 700-2000 years after the events, speech was made up. Okay, I think all the events were made up. But, if you were a biblical literalist, I think this is a real problem.

#There is absolutely no way that, in any naturalistic sense, you can see the biblical speech as remotely accurate. It’s impossible. It simply can’t have happened that all of that speech included is an accurate representation of what people said, often when there were no witnesses.

Seriously imagine sitting down now, with all that we know, and all of the literature we have at our fingertips, and accurately writing speech of, I don’t know, the Celtic tribal leaders of Southern “England” from 2000 years ago.

How do we know what Jesus said with Pontius Pilate? Who was recording the speeches? There is no evidence of any written literature that could support the speeches being transmitted anything other than orally. And you don’t really have great speeches in oral transmission.

I think that speech in the Bible is one of the weakest and most often overlooked historiographical points aspects when considering the historicity of the Bible.


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