Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Understanding the Bible: the Study of Ancient History

In order to get the clearest sense of the Bible and its original setting, “historically oriented biblical scholars have assumed mastery of a range of disciplines as fundamental to the toolkit of their craft” (B. J. Malina, Social World of Jesus xi-xii). Particularly relevant to Bible study are disciplines that enhance our understanding of how ancient literary works were produced and transmitted. 

Historiography is the study of historical writing. Even though the Bible is not strictly a historical narrative, it is packed with historical information. It goes without saying that the aim of the historian is to record facts, not to invent stories. Nevertheless, the ancient historian’s methodology (familiar to his contemporary readers) was not entirely the same as that of modern times. While completeness and accuracy were important, there was less concern about precision of dating and chronological arrangement. This is clearly demonstrated in a comparison of the Synoptic Gospels, wherein thematic or geographical arrangement often trumps chronology.

Papias of Hierapolis (ca. 60-140?) reports that Mark was “Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not indeed, in order, of the things said or done by the Lord…. [he] followed Peter, who used to give teaching as necessity demanded but not making, as it were, an arrangement of the Lord’s oracles, so that Mark did nothing wrong in writing down single points as he remembered them” (as quoted by Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.39.15; trans. K. Lake, LCL).

Long before the present-day copyright mentality, the meticulous documenting of sources was not deemed necessary. Without calling attention to it, writers could reasonably expect their contemporary readers to recognize well-known quoted materials. 

Every historian is interested in real people and actual events but is naturally limited to the amount of information he can realistically record. He must therefore be discerning and restrict his investigation and reporting to what he deems significant. The aim of the ancient historian, therefore, was to selectively portray historical accounts so readers could learn political, moral, or religious principles.

Dr. Luke would not fit into the category of the Roman historian, who tended to focus on events surrounding a single city and its people, or the Jewish historian, who was primarily concerned about the history of one ethno-political group. Rather, Luke shares much in common with the Greek historian, who often travelled to the places he writes about, observed the events he records, and presents a neutral account of the acts and persons he describes.2 

--Kevin L. Moore

     See R. Nocolai, “The Place of History in the Ancient World,” in A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography (ed. J. Marincola) 1-14.
     See B. Witherington III, Acts of the Apostles 25-36. Colin Hemer, in The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, views Luke’s writings according to the various methods of ancient historiography and identifies Luke as a traveling investigator in the same category as Polybius (cf. B. D. Ehrman, The New Testament: Historical Introduction [4th ed.] 124-26). D. E. Aune likens Luke's methodology to ancient historians like Polybius, Strabo, Diodorus, Josephus, and Herodian (NT In Its Literary Environment 117).

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