Issues of Ancient Composition, Thucydides, and Ehrman

Darrell L. Bock's picture

My review will not proceed chapter by chapter always, but will stop and focus on a key issue here and there.

That is where we begin with Chapter Two, which discusses Peter, but sets the table by discussing truth and genre, noting there are genres that present "truth" without presenting events that actually happened. Ehrman correctly names a series of genre that fit this category: historical fiction, myth, epic, legend, and novel (or ancient romance). 

He argues that the ancient had a harder time, lacking the kind of recording resources we have today. This also is true (But later we shall ask if the proximity of time to the events and the presence of eye-witnesses in the process worked as a kind of control on a situation to quite like that of Thucydides, where temporal distance is more of a problem for his account). Many writers were too far removed from their speeches to know what was said.

Ehrman names Thucydides as presenting this more open position for ancient historians, but does not cite the passage in Peloponnesian War 1.22. On page 47, Ehrman says that Thucydides "explicitly states that he simply made up speeches himself". There is no reason not to cite this text so everyone can see exactly what the ancient author claims and thereby gain an understanding of how one important historian described his method and task in describing the past. Are our only options truth or lying? Might there be other categories that also point to integrity?

Here is the text from Thucydides: 

“As to the speeches that were made by different men, either when they were about to begin the war or when they were already engaged therein, it has been difficult to recall with strict accuracy the words actually spoken, both for me as regards that which I myself heard, and for those who from various other sources have brought me reports. Therefore the speeches are given in the language in which (ta deonta), as it seemed to me, the several speakers would express, on the subjects under consideration, the sentiments most befitting the occasion, though at the same time I have adhered as closely as possible to the general sense (tēs xumpasēs gnōmēs) of what was actually said (tōn alēthōs lechthentōn). But as to the facts of the occurrences of the war, I have thought it my duty to give them, not as ascertained from any chance informant nor as seemed to me probable, but only after investigating with greatest possible accuracy each detail, in the case both of the events in which I myself participated and of those regarding which I got my information from others.”

Now what leaps out at one is the honesty of Thucydides about what he is doing. Simply put, he has done the best he can to give an accurate account, even in cases where he cannot be sure exactly what was said. To put this in lay terms, he summarizes and paraphrases what was likely said, through he does not present a word for word account and does the best he can with what he knows. What also is clear is that he is very concerned to be as accurate as he can be, even though he is clear he has worded what was said. Now he can fail in this goal (as we all can), but he knows what he should try and do as a historian. The attitude here is important. He is concerned to represent as best he can what took place even as he does frame in his own terms what is being presented. There is no deception here for the reader. He is clear about what he is doing and should do.

Classical scholars have addressed this accuracy versus invention tension in Thucydides.  J. Wilson wrote a piece on this text, "What Does Thucydides Claim for His Speeches?" Phoenix 36 (1982): 95-103. He concludes his article arguing he showed that the ancient author reported "in his own style, not the speaker's", "selecting from a number of speeches actually made", "selecting from the gnome [the general sense] (not reproducing it all)", "not reporting anything that does not count as gnome", "adding words to make the gnome clearer", abbreviating and expanding (so long as the gnome is clear)", and "casting the gnome (without changing its general force) in terms which might serve his particular purposes."

Lest we think this summary is iconoclastic, Wilson is not alone in arguing that total invention and forgery are not the result of such a method. Simon Hornblower in a book simply titled Thucydides (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984) makes a similar point  on p. 71 of his book, "In conclusion, Thucydides' aim in speeches, as in narrative, was to record truthfully-- to give 'what was really said'; but again there was an opposite and inconsistent aim, to omit, select and concentrate, giving instead 'what was appropriate'.

Earlier on p. 65, he says, "To sum up, none of the arguments for artificiality are so strong that we are forced to think wholly in terms of 'what was 'appropriate' rather than 'what was really said'. 

More recently, P. J. Rhodes has argued in a parallel way in a 1994 article in the classical journal Greece and Rome volume 41 entitled "In Defence of the Greek Historians," 156-171. He sees an interplay between accuracy and invention depending on what Thucydides knew and the author's desire to create some parallelism between his speakers. He argues Thucydides is not as free in his discussion of events (p. 164). He also notes that where we can compare what a writer in the style of Thucydides wrote (the Roman historian Tacitus) to what we know was said (emperor Claudias' address to the Gallic senators), we see "even after considerable reworking, an ancient historian's version of a speech can preserve much more of the original than just its main point" (p. 164). These speeches are not "direct reports" but neither are they "pure fiction" (p. 164). "They bear some relationship to what was actually said and the presence of an element of invention in them does not cast doubt on the reliability of his narrative of events." (p. 164) "There is reporting and invention in the speeches. but "there are limits to the extent to which we should doubt his reliability" (p. 164).

My point: All of this shows careful historians and ancient representers of history of the past knew their task was not to engage in wholesale deception. There was framing of events and a perspective argued for, but that should not include outright lying and misrepresentation. This point is being made about people who did not have any religious ground for being truthful. Their motive was simply to perform their responsibility, even as they made their case and carried out their agenda. In the case of Christians we have an additional moral commitment to being truthful and honest that would have only enhanced the balance between the room a historian felt he had in presenting and discussing the past and the way one could summarize or elaborate.

This is an important place to start, since this discussion works like a frame around the picture Ehrman or anyone else addressing this topic wishes to paint. The options and nuances in how the initial question is presented and pursued is important. So we open our evaluation of Ehrman noting he has set the table for the discussion with less care and absence of nuance than he should have.

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