Theology for the Masses

June 21, 2007

History in the Eyes of the Ancients

Filed under: history — Henry Imler @ 1:39 am

It is very easy to import modern ideas and standards of history writing onto Ancient texts. However, to do so will skew one’s reading of the text in a way that the author did not intend. The following are several concepts to keep in mind when reading ancient texts. ((The above list was taken from Novak. Christianity and the Roman Empire: Background Texts. pp 3-7))

Textual Transmission1) Lost in Translation Often the only copies of texts that we have today are copies of copies. Furthermore, they are often translations of the original text. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas was probably written in Syriac, but the earliest copy we have is written in Greek. On top of this, sometimes the original texts were translations of the speeches being recorded. An example of this last point are Jesus’ speeches recorded in the Gospels. Jesus spoke Aramaic; the Gospels were written in Greek. ((The Canonical ones were all written in Greek. There is a slight chance that the Gospel of Matthew was written in Hebrew, but it is most likely that it was written in Greek like the rest.)) It is important keep this process in mind when the exact order of words is being scrutinized.

2) History was for instruction, not for tracking details Ancient histories were not designed to be modern ones. Their primary focus was not on keeping track of historical minutia, nor was it designed to show a character’s development throughout time. Instead, it was designed to illustrate lessons to be learned by the reader. There was “… great freedom with which many ancient writers adapted their materials to achieve such goals…” ((Novak. Ibid. p.4)) This frame of mind should be accounted for when when studying ancient texts of all origins.

3) Look – Peter wrote this; hence it must be true Ancient authors had no problem with attributing works to authorities in order to give their work credibility. Christians have not been immune to this phenomenon. As early as the middle part of the first century, Christian leaders were complaining about letters being written in their name that contradicted with their positions. ((See Second Thessalonians 2:1-5)) The problem for “Christian texts” only got worse as the years went on. Robin Fox writes:

In the period c.400-600 “aggressive forgeries” added false letters to the collection of almost every early Christian Letter writer. These fake texts of theology helped to enlist the great authorities of the past on this or that side of a contemporary schism or unorthodoxy. ((Robin Fox. The Unauthorized Version p. 153-154))

Imagine someone finding a letter from Paul where he argues quite clearly for each of the five points of Calvinism. The problem was so bad that it was not until the 1500s that people could begin to sort the forgeries from the authentic letters.((Fox. Ibid. p. 154.))

Good Forgeries Even when people were not outright co-opting authorities for the sake of their own positions, there is the problem of attribution. It was common in Classical and Hellenistic Greek culture for a student to classify their own positions and work as their teacher’s. For example, there are more texts attributed to Aristotle that he could have humanly wrote. It is hard to determine in some cases where the teacher’s writing ends and the student’s begins. James H. Charlesworth has delineated the above idea into seven rough categories:((James Charlesworth. “Pseduo-Epigraphy”. Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. p.765-767 ))

  1. Writings not by an author, but containing some of the author’s own thoughts.
  2. Writings by someone who was influenced by another work whom the work is attributed.
  3. Writings influenced by someone who was influenced by the earlier works of another author to whom the work is assigned.
  4. Writings attributed to an individual, but actually deriving from a circle or school surrounding that individual.
  5. Christian writings attributed by their authors to an Old Testament personality.
  6. Once anonymous writings that have been incorrectly attributed to another individual.
  7. Writings that intentionally try to deceive the reader into thinking the author is someone else.

1 Comment »

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