Let Ancient People Speak for Themselves

Let Ancient People Speak for Themselves

by Lydia McGrew

January, 2018

As I’ve noted before, New Testament scholarship seems to give rise to sweeping statements about “ancient people” and how vastly differently they thought about the matter of truth than do “modern people.” The implication is usually that “ancient people” thought nothing of an author’s changing boring, literal facts, even in the case of authors of putatively historical works, because the ancients thought that “higher truth” was more important.


In an earlier post I quoted several explicit statements in the New Testament that have as their prima facie meaning that the apostles and the Gospel authors were very concerned about literal truthfulness. These include 1 John 1:1-3, Acts 4:19-20, 2 Peter 1:16, and John 21:24, and John 19:35.


John 19:35 is particularly striking since it refers to something specific that the speaker saw–namely, the piercing of Jesus’ side with a spear and the issue of blood and water. The concept of truth in the claim that “he that saw it bare record, and his record is true” is not non-literal, theological truth but specific, empirical fact.

In contrast, those who wish to downplay the importance of literal truth in the Gospels are prone to extremely strong statements like this:

We must not transfer these modern concepts to ancient texts without considering their understandings of truth and myth, lies and fiction. To modern minds, ‘myth’ means something untrue, a ‘fairy-story’; in the ancient world, myth was the medium whereby profound truth, more truly true than mere facts could ever be, was communicated. The opposite of truth is not fiction, but lies and deception; yet even history can be used to deceive, while stories can bring truth. This issue of truth and fiction in the ancient world is too complex to cover in detail here. However, the most important point to remember is that the ancients were more interested in the moral worth and philosophical value of statements than their logical status, in truth more than facts….Unfortunately, the debate between so-called ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ about authenticity is often conducted in twenty-first-century terms. As one student asked me, ‘Why does John keep fabricating material about Jesus despite his expressed concern for the “truth”?’ However, the negative connotation of ‘fabrication’ is modern. Richard Burridge, Four Gospels, One Jesus? A Symbolic Reading, pp. 169-170

Michael Licona, who has been much influenced by Richard Burridge on this subject, says this about John:

John often chose to sacrifice accuracy on the ground level of precise reporting, preferring to provide his readers with an accurate, higher-level view of the person and mission of Jesus. Why Are There Differences in the Gospels, p. 115

Licona goes so far as to imply that the prima facie assumption that a Gospel author was not making up an entire incident or series of incidents, such as the Doubting Thomas sequence in the Gospel of John, betrays a “nineteenth century” concept of truthfulness.

I hypothesized that John invented the Doubting Thomas episode as one possibility to account for the differences between the versions of the story offered by Luke and John. However, I go on to give a reason why the solution that Luke conflated two appearances is to be preferred. But Lydia is angered that I would even consider the former option. For her, John could not have done this. Why not? Apparently, because God would not have allowed it in the process of divine inspiration. But how would she know that apart from hearing it from God Himself? And why require the Gospels to have been written using literary conventions for historical reporting that were not generally accepted until the nineteenth century while eschewing attempts to understand them within the cultural and literary context of their own day?

I quote the context here to make it clear that Licona is apparently attributing a “nineteenth century” approach to history to me on the grounds that I think it overwhelmingly improbable that John invented the entire Doubting Thomas sequence.

I have already dealt elsewhere with Licona’s uninformed attribution of theological motives to me. As I have explained, the problem here is epistemological: Licona gives the theory that John made up the entire Doubting Thomas sequence far too high a degree of plausibility in his analysis–too high, that is, from a reasonable historical point of view. He treats it as only one of two finalist options, dismisses or ignores other, simpler options, and in the end merely narrowly decides instead that Luke deliberately “conflated” two appearances of Jesus. Let me add that the “reason” he gives for preferring to attribute fictionalization to Luke than to John is emphatically not that our evidence shows that John was not prone to invent entire incidents because John was more historically reliable than that! Indeed, in the context (pp. 177-178) one finds it a bit difficult to figure out why Licona “prefers” one of his two finalist solutions. The flow of the discussion seems merely to show that he dislikes a harmonization involving Luke’s usage of the term “the eleven” (to mean the group as a whole rather than a literal number of people), and he mentions his dislike of that harmonization just before stating that “therefore” it seems “more probable” that Luke has conflated than that John made up the whole sequence. The logic of the argument is obscure, since the insistence that Luke was using the term “the eleven” in a literal sense to mean precisely eleven disciples is what creates the alleged discrepancy in the first place; it does not actually do any work to help one decide that John did not make up the Doubting Thomas sequence, if one treats that as one of only two plausible options.

In any event, what I am drawing attention to here is the rather eyebrow-raising implication that one is using anachronistic, nineteenth-century standards if one considers it incompatible with John’s historical purpose for him to make up Doubting Thomas. One might well conclude from these statements that, if we’re sincerely attempting to understand the real literary and cultural context of the evangelist’s “own day,” we’ll think that it was a completely live option for John to make up Doubting Thomas while thinking of himself as telling the truth about the life of Jesus.

This is very much the view of “ancient people” being pushed by Richard Burridge.

Besides the fact that this view is already highly dubious in light of the many Scriptural indications to the contrary (see the earlier post), there is additional evidence to the contrary. I will give only some of it in this post.

First, note the emphasis of Papias of Hierapolis (c. AD 60-130) on coming into the closest contact possible with those who actually knew Jesus and heard what Jesus taught. Papias is quite emphatic that this was because he wanted to know the truth about Jesus:

I shall not hesitate also to put into ordered form for you, along with the interpretations, everything I learned carefully in the past from the elders and noted down carefully, for the truth of which I vouch. For unlike most people I took no pleasure in those who told many different stories, but only in those who taught the truth. Nor did I take pleasure in those who reported their memory of someone else’s commandments, but only in those who reported their memory of the commandments given by the Lord to the faith and proceeding from the Truth itself. And if by chance anyone who had been in attendance on the elders arrived, I made enquiries about the words of the elders—what Andrew or Peter had said, or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and John the Elder, the Lord’s disciples, were saying. For I did not think that information from the books would profit me as much as information from a living and surviving voice. (emphasis added)

Papias wanted to get as close as he could to the eyewitnesses of Jesus for purposes of knowing the truth about what Jesus taught. Again, there is a strong prima facie concern here (as in the New Testament itself) upon literal truth, contra Burridge and Licona.

There is a similar emphasis in Papias’s words about Mark:

Consequently Mark did nothing wrong when he wrote down some individual items just as he related them from memory. For he made it his one concern not to omit anything he had heard or to falsify anything. (emphasis added)

Several of Licona’s theories involve the serious possibility, left completely up in the air, that Mark did deliberately falsify things: For example, that Mark deliberately changed the day on which Jesus’ feet were anointed in Passion Week (p. 150) or that Mark deliberately changed the words of the angel at the tomb to direct attention to a meeting in Galilee, if Jesus really first appeared to his disciples in Jerusalem. (p. 180)

Papias, who can hardly be working with “nineteenth century” concepts of history, would not have approved. You might choose to disagree with Papias and think that Mark made things up anyway, but you can hardly deny that Papias (a contemporary of Plutarch!) counts as a representative “ancient” man who can give us more direct information about the historical standards of the time than, say, Richard Burridge.

I have saved the most explicit quotation on the subject for the last in this post.

Sextus Julius Africanus, c. AD 160-240, was a Christian historian, a convert from paganism, whose works are chiefly known through fragments preserved by Eusebius, upon whom he was an influence.

In his Letter to Aristides, Julius Africanus proposes a solution to the alleged discrepancies between Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies of Jesus, based upon the OT practice of Levirate marriage. One doesn’t have to accept his harmonization to note the importance of his letter to the point of this post.

First, the very fact that Africanus is attempting a harmonization on so dry and dusty a matter as Jesus’ literal genealogy already calls into question the entire “Burridge-style” dismissal of the importance of “mere facts” to the ancients, their preference for “profound truth, more truly true than mere facts could ever be,” and their willingness to fabricate literal facts in the service of this alleged profound truth.

But second, Africanus leaves us in no doubt about what he thought on the matter. Apparently in Africanus’s time there were theorists suggesting that perhaps the evangelists invented some of the names in their genealogies in order to make the theological point that Jesus is prophet, priest, and king. In condemning their views, Africanus explicitly and emphatically states the principle that I have articulated elsewhere–Fake Points Don’t Make Points.

Some indeed incorrectly allege that this discrepant enumeration and mixing of the names both of priestly men, as they think, and royal, was made properly, in order that Christ might be shown rightfully to be both Priest and King; as if any one disbelieved this, or had any other hope than this, that Christ is the High Priest of His Father, who presents our prayers to Him, and a supramundane King, who rules by the Spirit those whom He has delivered, a cooperator in the government of all things. And this is announced to us not by the catalogue of the tribes, nor by the mixing of the registered generations, but by the patriarchs and prophets. Let us not therefore descend to such religious trifling as to establish the kingship and priesthood of Christ by the interchanges of the names.The evangelists, therefore, would thus have spoken falsely, affirming what was not truth, but a fictitious commendation. And for this reason the one traced the pedigree of Jacob the father of Joseph from David through Solomon; the other traced that of Heli also, though in a different way, the father of Joseph, from Nathan the son of David….To no purpose, then, is this fabrication of theirs. Nor shall an assertion of this kind prevail in the Church of Christ against the exact truth, so as that a lie should be contrived for the praise and glory of Christ. For who does not know that most holy word of the apostle also, who, when he was preaching and proclaiming the resurrection of our Saviour, and confidently affirming the truth, said with great fear, If any say that Christ is not risen, and we assert and have believed this, and both hope for and preach that very thing, we are false witnesses of God, in alleging that He raised up Christ, whom He raised not up? And if he who glorifies God the Father is thus afraid lest he should seem a false witness in narrating a marvellous fact, how should not he be justly afraid, who tries to establish the truth by a false statement, preparing an untrue opinion? For if the generations are different, and trace down no genuine seed to Joseph, and if all has been stated only with the view of establishing the position of Him who was to be born—to confirm the truth, namely, that He who was to be would be king and priest, there being at the same time no proof given, but the dignity of the words being brought down to a feeble hymn,—it is evident that no praise accrues to God from that, since it is a falsehood, but rather judgment returns on him who asserts it, because he vaunts an unreality as though it were reality. (emphasis added)

Any questions?

I wrote my post arguing that fake points don’t make points before I had ever heard of Julius Africanus. Paul’s words concerning being “false witnesses about God” constitute (as Africanus says) another Scriptural counter to the view that literal truth was not important to ancient Christians. Moreover, Africanus himself, like Papias, is an ancient man and is capable of telling us, in no uncertain terms, whether those “ancient people,” including the evangelists and their original audience, thought it was just fine deliberately to make up or alter literal facts to serve some higher truth.

His unequivocal answer is “no.”

Let ancient people speak for themselves.

This post originally published at What’s Wrong with the World.

Lydia McGrew

Lydia McGrew

Dr. Lydia McGrew is a widely published analytic philosopher specializing in formal epistemology, probability theory, and philosophy of religion. She is the co-author, with her husband Tim McGrew, of the article on the resurrection of Jesus in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (2009). Her articles have appeared in many professional philosophical journals, and she is the author of the entry on historical inquiry and theism in the Routledge Companion to Theism (2012). Her recent book, Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts, revives a largely forgotten apologetic argument for the reliability of the Gospels, Acts, and the Pauline epistles. Without using any technical terminology, Lydia brings to bear her training in the evaluation of evidence and argues that this internal evidence strongly supports the eyewitness nature of these books of the Bible.

More posts by Lydia.


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