Home > Apostolic Christianity, Historical Christianity, Jesus > Godfrey on historiography 1: Polybius & Livy

Godfrey on historiography 1: Polybius & Livy

Classicist and historian Michael Grant is known for his popularization of Greek and Roman history. Neil Godfrey has criticized one of Grant’s works in particular, ‘Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels’ (1992), in two articles (here and here), accusing Grant of ‘talking through his hat‘, ‘unprofessional nonsense‘, and  ‘imaginative fantasies‘. This article will focus on one of Godfrey’s objections to Grant, specifically Grant’s comparison of the gospels to the historical works of the Greek historian Polybius and and the Roman historian Livy.

Godfrey’s objection

Godfrey quotes the following statement from ‘Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels’ (page 200), in which Grant states that discrepancies between historical accounts of an event do not mean that the event they are both describing never actually took place. Citing the differences in the gospel accounts, Grant cites discrepancies in the histories of Polybius and Livy when describing the same events.

Certainly, there are all those discrepancies between one Gospel and another. But we do not deny that an event every took place just because pagan historians such as, for example, Livy and Polybius, happen to have described it in differing terms. That there was a growth of legend around Jesus cannot be denied, and it arose very quickly. But there had also been a rapid growth of legend round pagan figures like Alexander the Great; and yet nobody regards him as wholly mythical and fictitious.

Godfrey objects to this comparison on the following grounds.

Of course no-one disputes events if Livy and Polybius describe them differently. Firstly, look at the different ways Livy and Polybius describe Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. The facts are not in dispute. One does not say Hannibal crossed the Alps after he invaded Italy and another before; one does not say he crossed with his army while another says the army crossed without him. These would be the sorts of differences we would expect if Livy’s and Polybius’s accounts are comparable to what we find in the Gospels. Rather, most of the differences are perceptions of the character of Hannibal: the patriotic Livy hates him while Polybius, a Greek historian, is more neutral. Yes, the Gospels also contain different attitudes towards the disciples, towards Jews and Romans. But they also contain much more significant contradictions that really do undermine their credibility as accounts ultimately derived from singular noteworthy events.

Godfrey links to the site of John D Clare, a professional historian. The specific page to which Godfrey links, provides an English translation of both Polybius and Livy’s account of the Carthaginian military leader Hannibal, crossing the European Alps during his invasion of Italy. Godfrey offers this page in support of his claim although Polybius and Livy describe Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps differently, ‘most of the differences are perceptions of the character of Hannibal‘, and none of the differences are equivalent to the differences found between the gospel descriptions of certain events.

Clare’s page contains a large number of detailed notes on the historical accounts of Polybius and Livy. It is unclear whether Godfrey has read these notes, which provide a useful way of comparing Godfrey’s assessment of these historical sources, with the assessment of a professional historian. Unlike Godfrey, Clare notes  a large number of substantive discrepancies between Polybius and Livy, as well as a number of historical ambiguities which are impossible to settle given the lack of information given by either historian, or by their misuse of their sources.

The historical sources for Hannibal

Polybius was contemporary with Hannibal, whereas Livy was writing over 100 years after Hannibal had died. These two historians are relied on as providing the most detailed historical accounts, having drawn from earlier sources (Polybius knew eyewitnesses of the war with Hannibal); Roman biographer Cornelius Nepos, and Greek historian Arrian of Nicomedia, are two additional sources on the life of Hannibal, though Nepos was writing over 200 years after Hannibal had died, and Arrian was writing around 100 years after Nepos.

Yet despite the wealth of historical sources for Hannibal, and the close proximity of his earliest biographers, considerable uncertainty remains about his early life, character, and motivation.

The true character of Hannibal eludes us. None of our sources provide the equivalent of the anecdotes told about the childhood and family life of the important Greek and Roman politicians of the era, many of whom were the subject of detailed biographies. We can say a good deal about what Hannibal did during his career, and often understand how he did it, but we can say virtually nothing with any certainty about what sort of man he was. As with so much else about Carthage and its leaders, there are so many things that we simply do not know, that even our sources probably did not understand. Was Hannibal for instance a Hellenized aristocrat who dreamed of copying and surpassing the great expeditions of Alexander or Pyrrhus, or did he remain very much the Punic nobleman with a very different set of beliefs and ambitions? Much as we try to understand Hannibal, he will always remain an enigma.’[1]

As we shall see, there is also considerable uncertainty about his famous crossing of the Alps. Historian Dexter Hoyos notes that reconstruction of any topic concerning the history of the Punic Wars itself is contentious, specifically due to the discrepancies and contradictions between the available sources.

‘Predictably, there are enough discrepancies and sometimes contradictions between accounts to make the task of establishing a reasonably true picture of any topic a contentious one.’[2]

Polybius & Livy as historians

Both Polybius and Livy have their strengths and weaknesses as historians of the life of Hannibal, but Godfrey does not mention any of their weaknesses in his description of them; instead he assures us that ‘Their works find independent support in other sources’.

We know who Polybius and Livy were, when they were born, where they lived, whom they knew and met, their political and social status, where they traveled, and why they wrote their respective histories of Rome. That is, we understand their interests and reasons for writing, and their interest and ability in writing a generally factual history. Their works find independent support in other sources.

Polybius is considered the better historian of Hannibal, given that he was a contemporary and was able to consult eyewitness accounts. Yet although Polybius identifies his two Roman sources for his description of the First Punic War, he casts doubt on their reliability.[3] When describing the Second Punic War, Polybius rarely mentions his sources, and typically does not identify them by name.[4] Historians identify Polybius’ Roman sources for the Second Punic War by a process of informed guesswork.

In his entire description of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps (book 3, chapters 49-56), Polybius does not name or even cite a single identifiable source, and his account contains almost no geographically identifiable place names. Hoyos has noted that Polybius ‘can be vague or simply wrong at times: as in his narrative, almost place-name free, of Hannibal’s passage over the Alps and his implausible account of Scipo’s early political career’.[5] Nevertheless, Polybius is generally considered the most reliable historian on the Punic Wars, and one of the best historians of ancient Rome.

John Clare’s assessment of Livy is highly critical, citing Livy’s inability to reconcile contradictions between his sources, failing to identify biases in his sources, carelessness in copying or translating sources, misdating events, and his ignorance of geographical, military, and political details he is attempting to record.[6] Historians have noted in particular Livy’s poor handling of his sources;[7] although he made some attempt to determine which of his conflicting sources were most reliable, his method of doing so was inadequate and his conclusions unreliable.[8]

Discrepancies between Polybius & Livy

Unlike professional historians, Godfrey does not inform readers of the significant discrepancies between the accounts of Polybius and Livy in their description of the Punic Wars. Polybius describes how the first peace treaty between Rome and Carthage was ratified, whereas Livy claims it was rejected; yet forgetting what he said earlier, later in Livy’s history he assumes the treaty was ratified after all.[9] Likewise, the description Livy gives of the Battle of Zama, is ‘bizarrely at odds with Polybius”.[10]

Since Godfrey has pointed to Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps as an example of agreement between Polybius and Livy (acknowledging differences between their accounts but claiming  ‘most of the differences are perceptions of the character of Hannibal‘), this section of their works will be examined, to see if Godfrey’s claim withstands scrutiny.

Discrepancy 1: encouraging or berating the troops?

At the beginning of their descriptions of Hannibal crossing of the Alps, Polybius claims Hannibal gave a speech encouraging his men ‘by reminding them of their achievements in the past’, whilst Livy claims he ‘called his troops together and harangued them with a mixture of withering scorn and general encouragement’, accusing them of cowardice.

Clare notes that there is a discrepancy between Polybius and Livy as to the timing of the event; ‘in Polybius, Hannibal was trying to encourage his men after the defeat by Scipio’s scouting party; Livy makes it a Hortatio speech before the ascent of the Alps‘. This is a significant discrepancy; it is impossible for both historians to be correct. Clare concludes ‘Given the fact that the army was still only at the Rhone, hundreds of miles from the Alps, one has to question Livy’s account’.

Clare also notes that Livy has written Hannibal’s speech in ‘a form of oration called a Horatio (= Exhortation)’, noting ‘this was a Greek form of oration’. Noting ‘there are other examples in Livy and throughout Greek literature’ of this oratorical form, Clare asks his reader ‘does the fact that this speech follows this form PROVE that Livy made it up?’. Clare’s question is rhetorical, his point being that just because a historical source records a speech in a particular well used literary form, does not mean the speech itself never took place or that the content is fictional; this is how professional historians treat historical accounts which use literary forms.

Discrepancy 2: a prayer to the gods?

Polybius says that after Hannibal’s speech to his troops he offered ‘a prayer to the gods’, but Livy does not mention this. Clare notes ‘This act – a standard example of Virtus Romana – is deliberately omitted by Livy; what different impression to Polybius’s impression of Hannibal was Livy thereby trying to create?’. Typical of Clare’s professional method, discrepancies between Polybius and Livy are not treated as indications that an event did not take place.

When an event is present in one account but not in another, Clare harmonizes the accounts by proposing one of the historians lacked a source available to the other, or that one of the historians deliberately omitted the event for personal reasons. When both historians give differing accounts of the same event, Clare concludes that they are using different, independent sources, rather than concluding that the event did not take place.

Discrepancy 3: where is the Iskaras?

Identifying a geographical location apparently known as ‘the Island’, both Polybius and Livy refer to it as the place where two rivers meet’; the Rhone, and the ‘Iskaras’ (Polybius), or ‘Sara’ (Livy). This is the first of a number of significant geographical discrepancies in the accounts of Polybius and Livy. Clare notes that historians still cannot agree on the identity of this river, and consequently cannot agree on the route taken by Hannibal over the Alps, despite all the details given by Polybius and Livy.

“Firstly, the river given in your set-text as the ‘Isère’ is actually in Polybius ‘Iskaras’ – since the 16th century historians have identified this as the Isère, but the British historian De Beer (1969) did not agree; he identified it as the Aigues (a river MUCH further south). Historians disagree about the route taken by Hannibal over the Alps. The suggestion that Hannibal turned east up the Isère would favour a route which took him over the Col du Mont Cenis or the Col de Clapier. The account in Livy, who states that Hannibal turned east up the Druentia (Durance), would suggest a southerly route over Mount Genèvre or the Col de la Traversette. We will never be sure.”

This is an irreconcilable discrepancy between the geography of the Alps, and the geographical descriptions given by Polybius and Livy; the river is not identifiable with any certainty. Either Hannibal went east up the Isère or east up the Durentia, but it is not possible to be certain and his route over the Alps remains unknown.

Discrepancy 4: mediator or partisan?

Polybius and Livy both describe Hannibal encountering two brothers disputing the leadership of their tribe. Polybius says Hannibal favoured one of them, ad ‘united with him therefore to attack and expel the other’, whereas Livy on the contrary says Hannibal acted as a peaceful arbitrator between the two. Clare concludes the discrepancy is the result of the historians using different sources.

“Although this story is paralleled in Livy, there are significant differences which suggest that Livy did NOT take the story from Polybius.”

“Where Livy says that Hannibal was invited to arbitrate, Polybius just states that he supported the elder brother; another sign that Livy here was following an alternative source to Polybius.”

Discrepancy 5: Allobroges or not?

Livy says the two brothers belonged to the Allobroges, a tribal group in Gaul; Clare notes that Polybius ‘infers the opposite’.

“Where Livy states that the brothers were Allobroges, Polybius does not do so, and rather infers the opposite, since here he has the brother protecting Hannibal against the Allobroges. This shows that Livy did not base his account here on Polybius. Given that the Allobroges later attacked Hannibal, you have to say that Polybous sounds the more convincing account here.”

Again, Clare understands this as an indication of different sources used by Polybius and Livy, rather than dismissing the event as fictional.

Discrepancy 6: allies or enemies?

Clare notes Polybius and Livy differ completely in their description of Hannibal’s experience with the naive tribes during his initial advance through the Alps, and again proposes two alternative sources as the origin of the contradiction.

“Notice, yet again, how Polybius and Livy reverse the role of the Gauls and the Allobroges. Polybius has Hannibal escorted by ‘Barbarians’ safely through the Allobroges; Livy has Hannibal helped by Allobroges and unmolested by ‘the local Gallic inhabitants‘. It shows that Livy was using a different source to Polybius here.”

Discrepancy 7: the enemy slipped away, or the attacks were renewed?

Polybius claims that the day after after an initial attack on Hannibal’s force, the local enemies ‘slipped away’, leaving Hannibal’s army uncontested.

“53.6. The next day the enemy slipped away and Hannibal was able to rejoin the cavalry and the baggage train and lead them to the highest points of the Alpine passes.”

In contrast, Livy says the enemies remained and continued their attacks the next day, though with reduced force; Livy specifically mentions further losses to Hannibal’s army at this time, completely contradicting Polybius.

“35.1. However, on the next day, the barbarian attacks grew less intense and the two parts of his army were reunited. They cleared the pass successfully, but with some losses, mainly of baggage animals rather than soldiers. 35.2. The numbers of tribesmen was now considerably reduced, though their attacks continued, sometimes on the vanguard, sometimes on the rear.”

It is not possible for both of these descriptions to be correct; either the enemy ‘slipped away’ the next day, or they continued to attack the next day and Hannibal’s army sustained further losses.

Discrepancy 8: the sight of Italy?

Polybius and Livy both claim that after nine days of travel Hannibal came to a vantage point from which he could look down on Italy, and encouraged his troops with their close proximity to their goal.

“54.2. So he called them all together and tried to boost their morale. He had only one source of encouragement, and that was the sight of Italy, clearly spread out below. It lies so close up under these mountains that anyone gazing on both together would imagine that the Alps towered above Italy like an acropolis above its city.” (Polybius)

“35.8. Fully aware of this, Hannibal rode out ahead and found a vantage point with a panoramic view across the whole landscape below. Here he ordered the army to halt and pointed out to them the view of Italy and the plains of the Po valley spread out at the foot of the Alps,” (Livy)

Clare points out that this is completely irreconcilable with the accounts given by Polybius and Livy themselves; it is geographically impossible for Hannibal to have seen such a view if he was in the position they claimed; either he could see the view because he was not in the position they claimed, or they were simply making use of a dramatic story about the event.

 “This is a wonderful story, which both Livy and Polybius tell … the only problem being that such a view exists ONLY on the Mont Cenis or the Col-de-Clapier passes. So either Hannibal used one of those two routes, or both Polybius and Livy were retailing a myth that was just too good not to use!

Discrepancy 9: five months to reach Italy?

Both Polybius and Livy claim Hannibal took five months to reach Italy, fifteen days of which were spent crossing the Alps. However, this is irreconcilable with their clam that Hannibal left Carthage in early spring.

“Polybius and Livy agree on five months (they perhaps took the figure from a primary source – presumably Silenus/Sosylus). But an arrival in early November would imply a departure in June, which contradicts utterly the statement in both Polybius and Livy that Hannibal set off in ‘early spring’ – Livy emphasises ‘right at the beginning of spring’ (i.e. early March in Spain). Yet a departure in early spring would put Hannibal over the Alps in August. There is clearly an error somewhere.”

Here the discrepancy is internal; both Polybius and Livy agree with each other but contradict their own accounts. It is notable that when faced with Polybius and Livy using a figure which contradicts their own accounts  Clare actually suggest the figure was taken from a primary source which neither historian cites, rather than dismissing the figure itself.

Discrepancy 10: fifteen days to cross the Alps?

Both Polybius and Livy say Hannibal took fifteen days to cross the Alps. However, Clare notes that their own accounts of the number of days Hannibal spent in the crossing, add up to 18 or 19; they contradict themselves.

“Amusingly, when you add up the days in both Polybius’s and Livy’s accounts they come to 18 or 19! Both of them appear to have accepted a figure – presumably from Silenus/Sosylus – without checking it!”

Again Clare reconciles the history by treating the figure as accurate and the historians as inaccurate, suggesting the figure of fifteen days is correct and that it derives from a primary source.

Discrepancy 11: how many men?

Livy notes the historical sources available to him are ‘hopelessly at variance’ with regard to how many soldiers Hannibal accompanied Hannibal into Italy.

“38.2 The authorities are hopelessly at variance as to the number of the troops with which Hannibal entered Italy. The highest estimate assigns him 100,000 infantry and 20,000 cavalry; the lowest puts his strength at 20,000 infantry and 6000 cavalry.  38.3 L. Cincius Alimentus tells us that he was taken prisoner by Hannibal, and I should be most inclined to accept his authority if he had not confused the numbers by adding in the Gauls and Ligurians; if these are included there were 80,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry.  38.4 It is, however, more probable that these joined Hannibal in Italy, and some authorities actually assert this.  38.5 Cincius also states that he had heard Hannibal say that subsequently to his passage of the Rhone he lost 36,000 men and a vast number of horse and other animals.”

Livy again contradicts Polybius, and Clare notes Livy has made the wrong choice.

“This section illustrates Livy’s poor handling of numbers. Although he acknowledges the great variation of numbers, he seems to be prepared to accept Cincius’s hearsay, despite being aware of significant problems with his calculations. And although he actually quotes Polybius’s numbers (without crediting him)he utterly ignores the greater authority of Polybius’s source (the column at Lacinium).”

Although Livy claims L. Cincinius Alimentus as a reliable eyewitness source (having been taken prisoner by Hannibal), Clare notes that this is not true; Alimentus was not an eyewitness to these events.

“A Roman annalist from the time of the Second Punic War, who really did spend years as a prisoner of Hannibal, and whose account of that time was praised by Polybius for its lack of bias. HOWEVER, although he was captured early in the war, he was NOT a prisoner when Hannibal crossed the Alps, and was not an eyewitness.”

Discrepancy 12: living off the land?

The accounts Polybius and Livy give of how Hannibal’s army sustained itself once in Italy, are completely contradictory on three points. Firstly, Polybius claims Hannibal’s army gathered plenty of supplies, while Livy claims the opposite.

“Polybius emphasizes the abundance of supplies gathered by the Punic army, but again Livy claims the opposite. He even alleges that Campania was inadequate to support Hannibal’s army, which was therefore threatened with hunger. Most importantly, the Roman troops successfully hindered Hannibal’s food supply.”[11]

Secondly, Polybius and Livy give different accounts of how the Romans responded at this time.

“Quite revealing is the following difference in Polybius’ and Livy’s accounts. While Polybius has Flaminius’ officers advise their commander to hold back and be on his guard against the superior numbers of Hannibal’s cavalry, Livy has the officers tell Flaminius to use his cavalry and light-armed troops to keep the enemy’s forces in check (Pol. 2.82.4; Livy 22.3.9).”[12]

Thirdly, Livy claims Hannibal’s supplies were exhausted by spring, unlike Polybius.

“Finally, Livy claims that in the spring of 216 Hannibal’s stores were exhausted and that he contemplated withdrawing into Gaul (22.23.3). Polybius, who noted that Hannibal’s army had been able to prepare their winter quarters near Gerunium unhindered, says nothing of the sort.”[13]

Professional treatments of the sources

Despite the numerous sources used by Polybius and Livy (some of them primary sources, and eyewitnesses), professional historians are still unable to reconstruct precise details of Hannibal’s journey across the Alps; the sources are too contradictory. Focusing only on twelve of the most glaring discrepancies, from Polybius and Livy we learn the following.

1. Hannibal started by encouraging his troops, or perhaps he started by berating them.

2. He then gave a prayer to the gods, or perhaps he didn’t.

3. A key point of his travel took place at a river with a disputed name, which is geographically unidentifiable.

4. His path through the Alps took him over the Col du Mont Cenis, or perhaps the Col de Clapier, or perhaps Mount Genèvre, or perhaps the Col de la Traversette;  his route is impossible to reconstruct with certainty, and historians still debate it.

5. He acted as mediator to two brothers, or perhaps he fought and defeated one of them as a partisan supporter of the other.

6. He was allied with the Gauls and fought the Allobroges, or perhaps he was allied with the Allobroges and fought with the Gauls.

7. After an initial attack on his forces the enemy slipped away the next day, or perhaps the next day they resumed fighting with reduced intensity but still inflicted further losses.

8. After nine days of travel he came to a vantage point at which he could see all of Italy, or perhaps he didn’t.

9. He arrived in Italy after five months, having started in early spring or perhaps not starting in early spring (or perhaps not taking five months at all).

10. He took 15 days to cross the Alps, or perhaps 18 days, or perhaps 19 days.

11. He arrived in Italy with 100,000 infantry and 20,000 cavalry, or 20,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry, or any number in between.

12. When he arrived in Italy his army was able to sustain itself easily by living off the land, or perhaps it wasn’t and it actually ran out of food.

Professional historians address the discrepancies between Polybius and Livy in a variety of ways. Some of those methods involve attributing the contradiction to differing sources, or to an accurate source which both Polybius and Livy cited but did not realise they were contradicting, or to the deliberate suppression of information by one of the historians for their own agenda, or to translation error (typically to Livy mistranslating a Greek source), or to a chronological re-organization of the events for purposes of dramatization.

Occasionally the discrepancies are explained by mismanagement of sources by Polybius or Livy (more commonly the latter), and various mathematical calculations are made in order to maintain the credibility of certain dates and time periods described by Polybius and Livy, whilst reconciling their inconsistencies and contradictions.

Professional historians do not dismiss Livy’s record as inaccurate or unreliable on account of his credulous citation of supernatural events, nor do they dismiss as unhistorical events which are described using common Greek and Roman literary conventions used in fictional works. They seek harmonization where possible, even to the extent of attributing information to primary sources uncited by either Polybius or Livy.


[1] Goldsworthy, ‘The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars, 254-146 BC’, pp. 157-158 (2004).

[2] Hoyos (ed.), ‘A Companion to the Punic Wars’, Blackwell Companion of the Ancient World, p. 2 (2011).

[3] ‘Meanwhile, for the First Punic War Polybius’ two principal sources were Q. Fabius Pictor (FGrH 809) and Philinus of Agbrigentum (FGrH 174). He found both to be deficient in historical method.’, Muneo, ‘Principal Literary Sources for the Punic Wars (apart from Polybius)’, in Hoyos (ed.), ‘A Companion to the Punic Wars’, Blackwell Companion of the Ancient World (2011).

[4] ‘Polybius also mentions some other Greek sources, many of whom seem to have been pro-Carthaginian. Most such are left unnamed.’, ibid.

[5] Hoyos (ed.), ‘A Companion to the Punic Wars’, Blackwell Companion of the Ancient World, p. 2 (2011).

[6] ‘1. Instead of synthesising all his sources, Livy uses first one, then another, almost fact-for-fact (this theory, is named Nissen’s Law after its inventor, the 19th century German classicist Heinrich Nissen); this methodology leads to all kinds of confusion as Livy repeats events, contradicts himself or, worse, tries to cover up errors he realises he has made earlier. 2. Where he is aware of contradictions in his sources, he often simply gives both; sometimes he says which he prefers, but he seems to use no methodology to evaluate his sources (as Polybius did) – he simply chooses the figure in the middle, or chooses the figure which suits his biases.  3. He seems to have failed to take account of the biases in the sources he was using – e.g. when criticising or praising Roman generals. 4. Carelessness in copying sources – historians have found evidence of mis-copying and mistranslations. He frequently gets dates wrong. 5. ‘Blind patriotism’ towards the Romans, and biases for (e.g. the Scipio family) and against (e.g. the Claudians) certain noble families … which sometimes leads him to distort or blatantly falsify the truth. 6. He often gets his geography wrong … which again sometimes leads to whole stories being repeated. 7. He was woefully ignorant in military matters, yet sometimes chose to contradict Polybius! He tried to simplify battles for his general audience, but made mistakes in doing so because he did not fully understand what was going on. Most of his battles simply recount an orthodox clash of infantry centre and cavalry wings and are describe in traditional/formulaic terms of shouting and slaughter … which Livy then livens up with peripheral details and anecdotes. 8. He had no experience of politics, so ‘the Senate’ occasionally turns up in a stereotyped manner to decide this or enact that, and ‘the People’ react in predictable ways to events; you get no satisfactory analysis of the workings of public opinion or politics from Livy.’, Clare, ‘Hannibal_Livy.doc‘.

[7] ‘Apart from the rare outburst such as 2.21.3-4,  6.1.1-3, and 8.40 where the historian seems to call into question the overall framework and evidentiary basis of Roman history, Livy invariably accepts rather uncritically the fictitiously detailed narratives of his sources, and erects his own probabilistic conclusions upon their unstable foundations.’, Forsythe, ‘Livy and Early Rome: A Study in Historical Method and Judgment’, Historia Einzelschriften 132, pp. 53-54 (1999).

[8] ‘A careful examination of the relevant data clearly demonstrates that Livy’s use of historical probability is in general quite inadequate for the difficult task of critically analyzing the historical traditions of early Rome. On the few occasions on which it is correctly employed, it never goes beyond the application of common sense. Far more frequently, however, Livy erects his conclusions upon dubious premises.’, ibid., pp. 53-54.

[9] ‘Reporting how Scipio Africanus’ first peace treaty with Carthage, in 203, was received by the Senate at Rome, Livy supplies participants with plenty of oratory while insisting that the treaty was rejected, a striking contrast to Polybius’ evidence of ratification – which Livy himself soon afterwards assumes to have happened.’, Hoyos (ed.), ‘A Companion to the Punic Wars’, Blackwell Companion of the Ancient World, p. 2 (2011).

[10] ‘His account of the climactic battle of Zama, in turn, is bizarrely at odds with Polybius’ which he seems not to understand fully (a Livian hazard also found elsewhere in his work); though it is not as bizarre as that of Appian, who like the epic poet Silius was determined to insert a hand-to-hand joust between the two great generals.’, ibid., p. 2.

[11] Erdkamp, Manpower and Food Supply in the First and Second Punic Wars’, in Hoyos, ‘A Companion to the Punic Wars’, Blackwell Companion of the Ancient World (2011).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

  1. Jakob
    August 19, 2013 at 6:37 pm

    Nice post. Do you think you could do one about Neil’s methodology (eg, external controls, his claiming that all HJ studies are ultimately circular)? He seems to bring this up a lot.

    • Jonathan Burke
      August 19, 2013 at 6:44 pm

      Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I have made quite a few posts responding to Neil’s articles, and I agree that his dismissal of the methods used by professional historiography is definitely a core issue (one of the reasons for this is that he often doesn’t realize that he is criticizing conclusions by professional historiographers, and thinks he’s simply objecting to ‘Bible scholars’ and ‘apologists’). Another issue with Neil is that he does not understand the criteria of authenticity. Sometimes he has referred to them or treated them as ‘criteria of historiography’, which is completely false. Additionally, he does not understand how they are applied, and typically presents them in caricature fashion. He also has a habit of skimming books for select phrases with which he agrees, ignoring the rest of the book (DM Murdock does this as well). His own approach is self-contradictory, and I think it would be useful to make a post entitled ‘Godfrey vs Godfrey’ demonstrating how he contradicts himself.

  2. Jakob
    August 19, 2013 at 10:32 pm

    That would be a fun post to read.

  3. Jakob
    August 21, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    Since you mentioned it, how does Neil misunderstand and thus misapply the criteria of authenticity?

    • Jonathan Burke
      August 21, 2013 at 6:57 pm

      1. When he confuses the criteria of authenticity, for criteria for the historicity of Jesus.
      2. When he fails to present the criteria of authenticity the way they are used by New Testament scholars.

  4. Jakob
    August 21, 2013 at 7:14 pm

    Gotcha. If I understand it correctly, the criteria of authenticity are meant to strengthen the probability that some historical event happened – not as a lock that the event was certain. As for #2, it seems he pretty much finds a situation where he can present them to get a conclusion other than what happens in HJ studies, and then mock them.

    • Jonathan Burke
      August 21, 2013 at 7:31 pm

      Yes that’s more like it. Let me explain it in more detail.

      1. The Quest for the Historical Jesus.

      Contrary to the way Godfrey treats it, the aim of the Jesus quest is not to prove the historicity of Jesus. That is the work of professional historians.

      The aim of the Jesus quest is to reach a conclusion on WHO Jesus was, and WHAT his aims were. The historicity of Jesus is not questioned by the Jesus quest, because the historicity of Jesus has already been established and accepted by the scholarly consensus of professional historians. New Testament scholars are in no position to dispute such a scholarly consensus, and there is no reason for them to do so.

      New Testament scholars should accept the historicity of Jesus as established by professional historians, just as philosophers accept the historicity of Socrates and Plato as established by professional historians, and do not start their books on philosophy with chapter after chapter assessing the historical evidence for these men.

      2. The Criteria of Authenticity.

      The aim of the criteria of authenticity is not to establish the historicity of Jesus. That is not what the criteria were created for. They were created to assess the authenticity of the Jesus tradition, namely the texts and ur-texts of the earliest Christian movement. That is why they are called criteria of authenticity. They were not created to assess the historicity of Jesus.

      The criteria of authenticity assess the authenticity of the Jesus tradition, consisting almost entirely of the gospels, Acts, and the letters and epistle. That is, they assess the PROBABILITY of sayings and events recorded in the Jesus tradition, as AUTHENTIC; what Jesus really said or did.

      Because they are sometimes used to assess the probability of EVENTS in the life of Jesus, they are sometimes referred to (though uncommonly), as criteria of historicity. However, this usage is very rare; over 90% of the time they are referred to as criteria of AUTHENTICITY. But even when the term ‘criteria of historicity’ is used, the term does not mean ‘historicity of Jesus’; it means ‘historicity of the EVENT’ under examination.

  5. Jakob
    August 22, 2013 at 6:49 pm

    So, are these criteria used in other disciples (eg Classics, your field), or were they developed by New Testament scholars primarily for the New Testament and have stayed strictly with NT studies. I know this another one of Neil’s contention points, and I haven’t quite found a straightforward answer to his claim.

    • Jonathan Burke
      August 22, 2013 at 10:03 pm

      Yes they are used in other historiographical research. Godfrey simply does not know enough about what he is trying to talk about. Here’s a list of criteria of authenticity with counterparts in professional historiography; the criterion are enumerated differently by various scholars, but this list covers the eight most commonly used (in some cases more than one criterion is conflated under one heading).

      1. Multiple attestation.

      Multiple independent sources are typically understood as strengthening the case for authenticity and historicity. This criterion is absolutely fundamental to professional historiography in any field.

      2. Embarrassment.

      Efforts to mask, explain away, or otherwise mitigate damaging information can identify historical facts. This criterion is NEVER used on its own in Jesus studies (you will see it completely misrepresented by the likes of Godfrey and Carrier), and it is used in other historical studies.

      See for example Baruch Halpern’s work ‘David’s Secret Demons’ (2001), in which he compares how two different sources treat an event in the life of David (page 295), actually using the very word ’embarrassment’ to explain why one source attempts to disassociate David from the event altogether, while the other source uses it to exculpate David from involvement in a battle against his arch-enemy. Halpern concludes the event really happened, and that since it was damaging to David’s monarchy but was too widely known to be denied, both sources attempted to mitigate it in their own way when writing a historical record validating the Davidic dynasty.

      3. Historico-contextual plausibility.

      This assesses whether or not the event fits its purported socio-historical context; a story of a man driving a tractor in first century Judea is clearly a fabrication, since it does not fit the socio-historical context. This is a standard criterion of professional historiography in any field, and is also used to detect interpolations by later editors of a text. Many classical texts have been examined using this criterion (including the Illiad, in attempts to date the text), and it has been used in particular to identify forgeries, pseudepigrapha, or interpolations. Reference to the consulate of Gallicanus in the Donation of Constantine (a document claiming to have been written while Constantine was consul), proves this document is a forgery; it could not have been written in Constantine’s day.

      4. Natural probability.

      That non-supernatural events in a record are more likely to be historical, and supernatural events are less likely. This is such a well established criterion of historiography it hardly needs mention. For example, Egyptologists strip the Egyptian record of the Battle of Qadesh of all its supernatural elements, and reconstruct the battle without them. Classical historians do the same with the records of Greek and Roman historians.

      5. Style & language.

      Typically separated into two, ‘Criterion of Palestinian/Aramaic phenomena’ (or similarly phrased), and ‘Criterion of Style’. The linguistic style fits the historical context of the purported events, and the language itself (Aramaic in the case of Jesus studies), indicates the earliest form of Christian tradition (since Jesus and the earliest disciples spoke Aramaic, and did not write in Greek).

      Again, this is used in standard historical critical treatments of other texts. To take the Donation of Constantine as an example again, anachronistic stylistic features and language proved that the document was written far later than the era of Constantine; it used some post-imperial formulas, and some medieval Latinisms which did not exist in the time of Constantine.

  6. Jakob
    August 28, 2013 at 4:40 am

    Thanks; that was very informative. What do you think about Godfrey’s constant claim that since we have no external controls for the gospels, they should not be trusted for anything historical?

    • Jonathan Burke
      August 28, 2013 at 9:33 am

      You’re welcome. As for the claim of Godfrey to which you refer, let’s just say I would take it seriously if it were made by someone with relevant professional qualifications.

  7. Jakob
    August 28, 2013 at 9:15 pm

    So I take it that no qualified professional shares Godfrey’s qualms in this regard.

    • Jonathan Burke
      August 28, 2013 at 9:31 pm

      I haven’t seen any. Controls typically used include Paul’s letters, Jewish historical sources such as Philo, Josephus, and the rabbinical literature, and Roman records such as inscriptions (the Pilate inscription is an example), histories (primarily Tacitus), and government literature (such as legislation and taxation records). These sources, without providing direct controls concerning events in the life of Jesus (except for Josephus and Tacitus, who do provide direct controls for parts of Jesus’ life), do provide controls for testing the historicity, and the probability, of events recorded in the gospels. These sources are the reason why the execution of Jesus by Pilate is considered historically most likely, while the massacre of the infants by the order of Herod is not. Standard scholarly commentaries make reference to this use of such controls.

  8. Jakob
    August 29, 2013 at 7:25 pm

    Okay, I guess I’m still missing it. I don’t see how you’re going from saying that there are no direct controls to saying these controls can help solidify why we think Jesus was crucified by Pilate. Godfrey is saying that since (and it seemed like you agreed, except for Josephus and Tacitus which he dismisses) there are no direct controls for events in Jesus’ life recorded in the gospels, we cannot place much of any trust in them. Your statement that direct controls are lacking but general controls can assist in demonstrating recorded events such as the crucifixion I’m not quite following, unless you mean they establish that Pilate existed and crucifixion was a common form of execution those days. It seems like there’s something I’m not getting, though; I appreciate the time you’ve taken so far.

    • Jonathan Burke
      August 29, 2013 at 7:37 pm

      Yes you’re missing what I wrote. I didn’t say there are no direct controls. I described two sources I identified specifically as direct controls. I also listed a number of indirect controls. Godfrey says there are no controls at all. I say there are two direct controls and a host of indirect controls. Can you see we’re not saying the same thing?

    • Jonathan Burke
      August 29, 2013 at 8:32 pm

      Ok, so we have direct controls and indirect controls. That’s how professional historiography works. Even indirect controls help establish the probability of events, and probability is what historiography is all about.

  9. Jakob
    August 29, 2013 at 8:30 pm

    Yes, I see it now. My bad.

  10. Jakob
    August 30, 2013 at 10:41 am

    Would sources like Mark, Q, M, and L (and John?) also count as controls and corroboration?

    • Jonathan Burke
      August 30, 2013 at 10:53 am

      Only insofar as they can be used as sources independent of the texts they are used to control and corroborate. Let me show you how distant from the facts Godfrey’s claims are; here are just a few examples of how controls are applied to the gospel accounts in both historical and literary analysis. You will note here the caution advised when using ur-texts such as Q, M, and L as controls, in the fourth reference I quote.

      1. ‘When the canonical Gospels are compared with the apocryphal gospels, one of the most impressive differences is how restrained the former are. THERE ARE HISTORICAL CONTROLS AT WORK in the canonical Gospels that were not present in the composition of the apocryphal gospels, which abound in extravagant miracles recorded mainly for effect and to impress the readers. The controlling element in the canonical Gospels is found particularly in the very important continuing availability of eyewitnesses.’, Hagner, ‘The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction’, p. (2012).

      2. ‘Hence, there is a real sense in which Acts and the Pauline epistles are independent sources for our knowledge of Paul, and consequently we have AN HISTORICAL CONTROL which validates the three essentials for the argument.’, Pearce, ‘Conversion in the New Testament: Paul and the Twelve’, p. 64 (1999).

      3. ‘An investigation into Galatians is particularly important since it is the earliest New Testament document dealing with the subject81 and it forms AN INVALUABLE HISTORICAL CONTROL for distinguishing between history and authorial interpretation in Luke-Acts.’, Esler, ‘Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts: The Social and Political Motivations of Lucan Theology’, pp. 86-87 (1989).

      4. ‘In these twelve points one can use Matthew as a check OR AN HISTORICAL CONTROL on Luke and vice versa, since this is an instance of multiple, independent attestation. Both Matthew and Luke have inherited common earlier traditions about the infancy of Jesus. Each of them has adopted such details, which may be regarded as the historical nucleus, and incorporated them into his own structured literary composition. As for the other details in the two infancy narratives, beyond these twelve that have been inherited in common, they may have come from the private sources that both Matthew and Luke have used, from “M” or “L”. BUT NO ONE CAN BE SURE about the use of “M” and “L” in this part of the gospel tradition; one cannot exclude the likelihood that both Matthew and Luke have freely composed their narratives, while making use of these twelve points. If so, then one has to allow for doubts and hesitation about the historical character of the rest (e.g. in the Matthean narrative, about the visit of the magi, the flight to Egypt, the massacre of the innocents, the return to Nazareth; similarly in the Lucan narrative, the visit of the shepherds, the presentation in the temple, the finding of the twelve year old Jesus in the temple). Such details have no counterpart in the other infancy narrative, and THERE IS NOTHING LIKE AN HISTORICAL CONTROL FOR THEM. Yet the historical kernel (the twelve points) prevents one from writing off the infancy narratives as mere fabrications out of whole cloth.’, Fitzmyer, ‘A Christological Catechism: New Testament Answers’, p. 31 (1991).

      5. ‘This inquiry responds to the objection that “unity is in the eye of the beholder” by demonstrating the correspondence throughout this argument with contemporary Greco-Roman texts, THUS PROVIDING AN HISTORICAL CONTROL for the literary analysis.’, Mitchell, ‘Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation: An Exegetical Investigation of the Language and Composition of 1 Corinthians’, Hermeneutische Untersuchungen zur Theologie, number 28, p. 2 (1991).

      6. ‘Support for the OT story behind the text derived from step one of the methodology is much more likely to have been behind Matthew’s OT quotations if this same story can be found in other Jewish and Christian works, such as Philo, Josephus, the DSS, and other portions of the NT. The inclusion of these extra-biblical sources in this work PROVIDES A HISTORICAL CONTROL for how the OT story is understood and where the OT story is found by establishing a first-century perspective for understanding the texts.’, Ray (III), ‘The Story Behind the Story: The Use of the Old Testament in Matthew’s Birth Narrative’, p. 32 (2008).

  11. Jakob
    August 30, 2013 at 10:56 pm

    Ok; so if I understand right the gospels sometimes serve as controls for each others (like #4 mentioned) and I’ll venture to guess that where direct controls are lacking and indirect ones are the only option, this is where the criteria of authenticity come into play. Is this accurate?

    • Jonathan Burke
      August 30, 2013 at 11:02 pm

      Yes the gospels (and their ur-texts), sometimes serve as controls for each other. Where direct controls FOR THE HISTORICITY OF JESUS are lacking and indirect ones are the only option, then indirect ones are used. But the criteria of authenticity are NOT used to establish the historicity of Jesus.

      Where direct controls for THE ORIGINAL JESUS TRADITION are lacking and indirect ones are the only option, then indirect ones are used WITH THE CRITERIA OF AUTHENTICITY.

      It’s important to keep these issues clear; the criteria of authenticity are NOT used to establish the HISTORICITY OF JESUS. They are used to determine the AUTHENTIC JESUS TRADITION. That’s why they’re termed criteria of authenticity.

  12. Jakob
    August 31, 2013 at 7:46 pm

    So, how do the indirect controls help establish the historicity of Jesus, since they don’t mention him or events in the gospels? Also, if they’re used to help determine probability and historicity of events recorded in the gospels, what criteria are used?

    • Jonathan Burke
      August 31, 2013 at 8:04 pm

      When indirect controls DO mention events in the gospels, and people in the gospels, and places in the gospels, they help establish the historicity of Jesus. As for your second question, you need to either take a degree in historiography, or read an academic work on the subject, or at the very least read the relevant Wikipedia article, but explaining the professional historiographical process to you will take more time than I have. Even listing the various groups of criteria used would take a couple of pages.

  13. Jakob
    August 31, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    I totally understand for the second one. I guess it’s not as clear to me for the first one; if we use Philo, we know he mentions Pilate and his cruelty, so is his primary purpose here to help ground the gospel events in real time (kind of peripheral details that establish the circumstances in reality rather than myth)?

    • Jonathan Burke
      August 31, 2013 at 8:44 pm

      This is exactly why I gave you several examples previously, such as the murder of the infants in Bethlehem under Herod and the ministry of John the Baptist.

      Taking the trial and sentencing of Jesus by Pilate as an example, direct sources on Pilate such as Tacitus and the Pilate inscription allow us to answer questions such as ‘Did Pilate exist?’, ‘Was he a governor at the time claimed by the gospels?’, ‘Did he have the authority to command executions?’, ‘Was he in Judea at the time the gospels said he tried and sentenced Jesus?’, and ultimately ‘Did he sentence Jesus to crucifixion?’.

      Sources such as Philo and Josephus (direct sources on Pilate, and therefore indirect controls for the trial and sentencing of Jesus), help us answer more difficult questions about the specific details given in the gospels, such as ‘Was Pilate likely to be influenced by a Jewish crowd?’, ‘Is it likely he would have wanted to release Jesus?’, ‘Would he have been influenced by a bad dream his wife had?’, ‘Would he have been likely to have seen Jesus as a threat?’ and ‘Would he have permitted Jesus’ body to have been taken down from the cross and buried by a stranger?’. The answers to these questions are not decisive; they are matters of probability.

      And yes, any indirect sources demonstrating agreement between the events in the gospels and the socio-historical context in which they took place, contributes to our assessment of the probability of their historicity.

  14. Jakob
    September 7, 2013 at 6:39 am

    So, why is it do you think Neil is so out of touch with these issues, and then whenever he finds any one scholar who supports his ideas it automatically proves that he is right (because he at very least seems to interact with the scholarly literature on the subject on his blog)?

    • Jakob
      September 7, 2013 at 10:46 am

      Clarification: “prove” not meaning legitimately supporting per se, but “proving” in his view of it. Not meant to be read woodenly.

      • Jonathan Burke
        September 15, 2013 at 10:00 am

        Firstly, he lacks the training to understand the field on which he writers most frequently; New Testament studies. This is why he keeps referring to the criteria of authenticity as criteria of historicity. He thinks they were criteria invented to determine the historicity of Jesus.

        Secondly, he lacks the academic training to understand the historographical method, which is why he keeps saying that none of the criteria of authenticity match the kind of procedures used in professional historiography (as I have demonstrated, this simply isn’t true).

        Thirdly, he’s not a good researcher. It’s clear he sometimes just searches Google Books for keywords, and grabs sentences or paragraphs without having read the entire book, or at least enough of it to understand what he’s reading.

        Fourthly, there’s a strong confirmation bias in effect, as you’ve noticed. Any academic work favouring his personal beliefs is treated as authoritative or at least more authoritative than sources which do not favour his personal beliefs. He takes no time to check the reception of the work in the broader scholarly community, post and assess reviews from professional peers, and determine the extent to which the work has established its case in the view of the relevant academic field.

        Fifthly, and related to the previous point, he is dismissive of scholarly consensus and the intellectual rigour of the peer review process, repeatedly claiming there is some kind of ‘scholarly guild’ defending an ‘orthodox’ view against criticism or challenge by simply ignoring or deliberately excluding other views from discussion and denying them credibility. This is a conspiracy theorist view which says more about Neil than the academic community.

        Sixthly, the Dunning-Kruger effect.

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