Discover more from The Humble Skeptic
On Faith & History
Can we trust what we read in history books? What even qualifies as history, and how does the approach of Luke compare with other ancient historians such as Homer, Herodotus, Livy, or Thucydides?
One of the most treasured classics of the ancient world is Homer’s Iliad, which tells the story of the Trojan War. Homer lived some 800 years before the time of Christ, while the Trojan War he narrates took place some 400 years earlier. Therefore, The Iliad is not an eyewitness account of the war, but is more of a record of the tradition that Homer had received in his day. This epic tale is much more than a chronicle of the events that transpired during the assault against Troy, since it also contains many detailed accounts of the gods intermingling with the affairs of mortal men, and for this reason, many historians consider The Iliad to be more poetry than history. In other words, though some of the events in the book really took place, the basic facts of the story have been transformed into legend across the span of time.
Interestingly enough, this is basically the view that many people in the academic world hold concerning the Bible. Essentially, it’s an accumulation of myths and legends in which the natural and supernatural intersect. But if you do believe the Bible, you should stop for a moment and ask yourself why this might be a good explanation of Homer, but not of Moses? Why is it easy for us to believe that Zeus and Athena are mythological, but not Elijah or Jesus?
So how can we be sure that the Bible is an authentic and trustworthy account of ancient history? To this question some simply respond, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it!” But few of us say this with regard to other kinds of inspired literature. In fact, Homer himself begins his epic this way: “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilles and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaeans” (1). Indeed, it was common for ancient books of this period to begin with a dedication to the muse, for it was believed the author was merely an instrumental vehicle while the words themselves were divine in origin. So if you were to ask people from Ancient Greece whether or not they believed Homer’s account, one answer you would likely hear would be, “Without doubt, for it is the very word of the goddess!”
As with someone at the bus station who claims to receive divine visitations, a healthy dose of skepticism might be advisable. Just because a person claims to speak for God, doesn’t in fact make it so. It’s one thing to claim divine inspiration, and another thing altogether to vindicate that claim. In the book of Proverbs, we find the helpful maxim, “The simple man believes everything, but the wise man gives thought to his steps” (14:15). Christians therefore are cautioned not to believe any and every claim, for this approach would clearly lead to idolatry and superstition. Rather than being gullible, we are called to think through competing truth claims that present themselves in the marketplace of ideas (cf. 2Cor. 10:5, Col. 2:8, 1Th. 5:21, 1Jn. 4:1).
Another significant ancient historian is Herodotus of Halicarnassus, whose history recounts the Greco-Persian wars six or seven centuries before the time of Christ. Living approximately in the fifth century BC, Herodotus is often credited as being one of the fathers of history. How did he achieve such a feat? Rather than beginning his work with a hymn to the muse, Herodotus starts off with the following words: “Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time” (2). Behind the word translated here as “inquiry” is the Greek word historia, which happens to be the very root of the English word “history.” Unlike Homer, Herodotus does not rely on the gods for his report, but he has personally researched and investigated the information he passes along to his readers. His research focuses on the human causes of the conflict, and we are no longer given access to the heavenly courts as we were in The Iliad.
Although it is a researched report, Herodotus is not really an eyewitness to most of the events he recounts. He simply records the reports of many individuals and nations. Sometimes he will admit that he has come across a variety of differing accounts for a single event and, not knowing which is true, he simply reports all views, letting the reader make the choice. Herodotus also includes many fantastic stories, some of which approach the supernatural. Occasionally he will even admit of his own personal skepticism about these kinds of tales, but he includes them in his report because they happen to be popular beliefs of the time. Although his work did in fact help to create the science of history, many today end up reading Herodotus in a way similar to that of Homer. In actuality, his history tells us more about ancient beliefs than actual ancient events.
Another ancient chronicler worth investigating is the Roman historian Livy, who lived from 59 B.C. to A.D. 17. His book The Early History of Rome traces the roots of Rome’s founding to the height of its Republic. Livy rec- ognizes early on in his work that there is a problem reporting ancient history, for he admits at one point, “Who could speak decisively about a matter of such extreme antiquity?” (3). Here we see an immediate difference between his work and The Iliad. Homer did speak decisively, because the muse spoke directly through him. It was the very word of the goddess. Livy, however, was a mere mortal whose task was to write down the origins of the Roman Republic much of which cannot be clearly determined due to the ravages of time.
Livy also discourses on some of the problems historians have to face. “I am aware,” he writes, “that for historians to make extravagant claims is, and always has been, all too common” (4). He even admits that “events before Rome was born or thought of, have come to us in old tales with more of the charm of poetry than of sound historical record.” But the author does not continue in this skeptical path for long:
Such traditions I propose neither to affirm nor refute. There is no reason, I feel, to object when antiquity draws no hard line between the human and super- natural: it adds dignity to the past, and, if any nation deserves the privilege of claiming a divine ancestry, that nation is our own (5).
Livy is no naturalist. He is willing to allow supernatural explanations in his history because it gives Rome dignity. The question, however, still remains: Did the things in the report actually happen? It may make the report more interesting and readable, but is it true? This is a great example of the problem of historical bias. Livy’s bias, evident in the lines, “I hope my passion for Rome’s past has not impaired my judgment,” (6) did perhaps allow him to be less critical of the “fantastic and supernatural stories” he included in his history of the founding of his own mother country.
In his famous book The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides recounts the battles between Sparta and Athens in the fourth century BC. In this work, the author greatly helped to pioneer the science of history as we know it today. Following the approach and style of Herodotus, yet with vast improvements, Thucydides writes:
For though the events of remote antiquity, and even those that more immediately precede the war, could not from lapse of time be clearly ascertained, yet the evidences which an inquiry carried as far back as was practicable leads me to trust, all point to the conclusion that there was nothing on a great scale, either in war or in other matters (7).
Again, here the task is human and difficult. It took a great deal of inquiry and evidence gathering, and even after all his hard work, Thucydides admits that many events of ancient history could not be clearly determined. But doing his best with the evidence available, he put together a story he argues is trustworthy on the main details. This is why he is considered, even more than Herodotus, the father of history. And yet, even here we discover that we’re still in the realm of “trust.” This is not “blind faith,” but a kind of trust that proceeds with caution, and rests on available evidence.
Thucydides not only researched his report, he also was an eyewitness to much of the war he chronicles, having served in the Athenian military for a number of years. This gives his work a great deal of reliability. But even more than his personal presence in the war, the author’s critical approach is more than anything the cause of his greatness:
Having now given the result of my inquiries into early times, I grant that there will be a difficulty in believing every particular detail. The way that most men deal with traditions, even traditions of their own country, is to receive them all alike as they are delivered, without applying any critical test whatever (8).
Thucydides then demonstrates that various Greek cities had a number of false ideas and assumptions regarding various political policies. He concludes with the remark, “So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand” (9). This, then, is the true task of the historian: he is to investigate and research the various claims that come his way, and he is to apply critical tests to his subject of study.
“On the whole, the conclusions I have drawn from the proofs quoted,” Thucydides cautiously notes, “may, I believe, be safely relied upon” (10). Again, the historian here is telling us that his work can be trusted because his conclusions are supported by the evidence. He then adds this:
Assuredly they will not be disturbed either by the lines of a poet displaying the exaggeration of his craft, or by the compositions of the chroniclers that are attractive at truth’s expense; the subjects they treat of being out of the reach of evidence, and time having robbed most of them of historical value by enthroning them in the region of legend. We can rest satisfied with having proceeded upon the clearest data, and having arrived at conclusions as exact as can be expected in matters of such antiquity (11).
One of the best known aspects of Thucydides’ history is the fact that he records a great number of moving speeches throughout his work, such as the famous funeral oration of Pericles. Early in his work, he explains his methodology:
With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said (12).
Here we see Thucydides’ honesty about the problem of memory. He does not recount these speeches word-for-word but has crafted them partly by his own memory, by the use of various reports and also by his assumptions of what was demanded of a particular speech. Some here are critical at this point, arguing that the historian has admittedly written some fiction into his supposedly nonfiction work. But the brilliance of Thucydides is that he admits his approach at the outset, so that we know his speeches are in fact general summaries.
Many today argue that the Bible is not a true historical record because of its various accounts of the miraculous and supernatural. But how do we know that these sorts of things are impossible from the get-go? To simply assert that they cannot occur merely represents a faith conviction—the faith of naturalism. But as we have seen, true history requires an investigation or an inquiry. So leaving our assumptions about the world behind for a moment, let us inquire into the life of Jesus by examining the records of an ancient chronicler by the name of Luke. The first words of this ancient text read as follows:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught (1:1–4).
Notice here that the author does not begin with a hymn or prayer to the gods, nor does he rest his claim of trustworthiness on divine inspiration. Rather, Luke tells Theophilus that he has closely researched and investigated the events of the life of Jesus. He has even personally interviewed eyewitnesses, and this is why his readers can have certainty. In short, the style of this historian is exactly what is admired in the works of Thucydides, the father of history. Therefore, the form and structure of Luke’s Gospel should be admired by believer and historian alike. But since Luke was reporting on recent events and had the ability to interview living eyewitnesses, he had an obvious advantage over Thucydides, whose record was less certain since it dealt with “matters of such antiquity.” And unlike Herodotus, Luke does not quote a number of sources, leaving the reader to pick the version he likes best, but he gives us certainty based on the quality of his interviews.
Yet, there is a problem with the content of the eyewitness report that Luke presents. For it is claimed in this text that a man by the name of Jesus was seen healing people, calming storms, raising the dead, and so forth. People heard the voice of God from heaven say of this man, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased” (3:22). Here we find content similar to that of Homer, within a structure surpassing the quality of Thucydides. God appears to be intermingling with the affairs of men, yet surprisingly, we find this in the midst of a well-researched report!
Luke is also the author of another New Testament text known as The Acts of the Apostles, which focuses more on the apostle Paul than any other figure. In Acts 17, Paul is recorded as saying, “God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given proof to all by raising him from the dead” (17:31). Here the Athenians were not merely encouraged to “take a leap of faith” but were given a reason for believing. God had interrupted the course of world history in the person of Christ and would return someday to judge the living and the dead. The proof of this was Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. This is also the sense one gets from reading Luke’s report of Paul’s testimony before Festus and Agrippa:
Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but what I am saying is true and reasonable. For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner” (Acts 26:24–26).
Paul does not attempt to persuade these men through any form of emotional manipulation or by encouraging them to get in touch with their inner feelings. Rather, Luke’s report shows that Paul grounded his faith on publicly revealed truth claims. Paul wrote something similar in his first letter to the Corinthians sometime around 55 AD:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive (1 Cor. 15:3–6).
On a recent episode I discussed the fact that in this passage Paul actually cites an early Christian creed. And what do we find in this early creed? The focus is not in internal subjective feelings or experiences, but on Christ’s death burial and resurrection which was testified in advance by the prophets, and by numerous living eyewitnesses which included the apostles and hundreds of other people still alive at the time of Paul’s writing. In verse 14, Paul famous says “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” In other words, if Jesus didn’t actually rise again from the dead in actual history, then Christianity is worse than useless.
Personally, I think we should allow those who do not believe the Bible to pursue this line of inquiry with all their might. It is possible that Christianity is founded upon a lie. But if so, that becomes a fascinating historical question in its own right. How did such a lie achieve such historical prominence? At this point we should help furnish serious inquirers with books and arguments to spur them on in their investigation, but our principal task should always be to encourage them not to proceed with the blind faith of naturalism. Rather, we should continually push them to research and inquire about these strange texts from ancient Palestine and to be open minded as they read and investigate these matters. Invite them to come up with alternative explanations and follow them through logically. You will find that The Gospel of Luke and other New Testament texts are not easily dismissed.
There are thousands of people who have claimed to speak for God. Is Homer right? Muhammad? How about the crazy dude at the bus station? This is where Christianity has an obvious advantage. It does not merely say, “Believe,” but gives proof, reasons, and reliable evidences that gives you a solid foundation for your trust. Those who reject Luke’s account because he reports miracles and other supernatural activity, end up revealing their own naturalistic assumptions. They know the world so well that they simply don’t need to bother investigating any of Luke’s claims. Miracles don’t happen, because they can’t happen! But those who, in the spirit of Herodotus and Thucydides, end up investigating Luke’s intriguing report, will find there is something here that’s not easily dismissed.
Shane Rosenthal is the founder and host of The Humble Skeptic podcast. He was one of the co-founders of the White Horse Inn which he also served as host from 2019-2021, and he received an M.A. in Historical Theology from Westminster Seminary in California. An earlier edition of this article appeared in the May/June 2010 edition of Modern Reformation magazine.
Homer, The Iliad of Homer, translated by Richard Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 59 (1.1–2).
Herodotus, The Histories of Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Selin- court (New York: Penguin Books, 1954, revised edition, 1996), 3 (preface to Bk. 1).
Livy, The Early History of Rome, translated by Aubrey de Selincourt (New York: Penguin Books, 1960, revised edition, 2002), 33 (1.3).
Livy, 29 (preface to Bk. 1).
Livy, 29–30 (preface to Bk. 1).
Livy, 30 (preface to Bk. 1).
Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Richard Crawley (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2006), 5 (1.1). Crawley’s translation first appeared in 1876.
Thucydides, 17 (1.20).
Thucydides, 17 (1.20).
Thucydides, 17–18 (1.21).
Thucydides, 18 (1.21).
Thucydides, 18 (1.22).
The Humble Skeptic is a listener-supported podcast. To support this work, consider becoming a paid subscriber.