Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"The Ancient Greek Historians", by J.B. Bury.

This book is a series of lectures originally given at Harvard in 1908 by one of the greatest in classical studies. While perusing the shelves of a Barnes and Noble recently, I came across this and couldn't resist, especially since it was only $7.

I have been studying Ben Witherington's commentary on Acts recently and it includes the assertion that the Biblical writer Luke was largely operating in the historical traditions of Polybius and Thucydides. In particular, the handling of the large portion of speeches (30% of Acts) and the need to travel, research facts, and generally be thorough in everything he did. Now I can hear the sounds of thousands of 19th century scholars groaning in their graves.

Bury provides an outline of the development of historical methods beginning with Homer, and continuing through Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, and finally to the Roman historian Tacitus, but with many others mentioned along the way. The handling of the speeches is a major theme, particularly as Polybius protests the earlier historians who simply invented whatever they imagined. There is also the distinction between the arm chair historians of Rome and the get-your-feet dirty style of Polybius and Xenophon who also wrote about military campaigns which was informed by their expertise in military affairs. I wish he had some comments about Josephus.

At the end, Bury credits Christians with formulating a broader notion of history than what preceeded, but then complains that Christians subordinated history to dogma in the middle ages and history wouldn't become scientific again until the 19th century. This deserves a smirk, because the 19th century is what gave us the flat earth theory, the twisting of the story of Galileo, and the fabrication of the "dark ages", ... - all done to conform with atheist dogma that ruled academia from the early 19th century.

Regarding Biblical comparisons, there is more than just Luke. Thucydides is credited with removing the supernatural from the immediate discourse, but then we have Ezra-Nehemiah and Esther which don't mention the supernatural directly either, and purport to be from the era of Herodotus. Could it be that Thucydides picked up his pattern from somewhere else? More groaning. But then Luke was a doctor, so his expertise regarding healing should be comparable to Xenophon's expertise in military affairs, so Luke would be the right one to write and Jesus and the early church, wouldn't he? Bury is a good read and provides a nice summary to fill in the claim of Witherington regarding the methods of Luke.

Correction: The Dark Ages was in use long before the 19th century.


Max said...

Hey Looney,

Isn't it shocking that in the 19th century, after Galileo Galilei, there would be some beings defending that the earth was flat? What went through their mind?

Anyway, I understand what Bury meant when he said that scientific thought had reborn during the 19th century. He is probably talking about the major intellectual revolution that occurred by the end of the mentioned century, where science explained everything (which doesn't, even today) and if any argument had no scientific support than it couldn't be considered valid nor fruit of reason.

This seems to be an interesting book, I will look for it.

BTW, I know tomorrow is a holiday there so: Happy Thanksgiving!


Looney said...

Actually, there is no record of a belief in a flat earth prior to Washington Irving's 19th century novel about Christopher Columbus. Irving dreamed it up and put it into the mouths of his fictitious church characters. Scholars couldn't resist building additional fictions onto this and scouring ancient literature for anything that might be construed to imply a flat earth belief! The 19th century did indeed bring some science to historical methods, but it didn't bring integrity. There is a good book on this subject called "Inventing the Flat Earth".

Max said...


We have records that the Spanish (and the Portuguese) believed the Earth to be flat in the 15th century...but I am not sure whether the documents are online or not (I will have to check). These beautiful documents are physically in our National Library...the maps that have been drawn at the time, are incredible! But I will check to see if it is online or not...

Yes, I have heard of that book, but never read it! Is it in any way related to the "Flat Earth Society"?

Looney said...

Max, I have an English translation of "The Life of the Admiral" by Ferdinand Columbus, the son of Christopher Columbus. He goes over the arguments that were made by those opposed to his father, but there is no mention of a flat earth theory. (I can post the translated text if you like.) I doubt that you will find any 15th century reference to a flat earth theory, because the prevailing notions throughout Europe during the Rennaissance period were from the Greeks who had already accurately measured the Earth's circumfirence using shadows at different latitudes. (Eratosthenes ~200BC) As far as maps go, I can show you a flat earth map from my recent Times Atlas of the World! This is simply a problem of graphically representing a sphere on a plane.

Inventing the Flat Earth was written by a University California history professor, Jeffrey Burton, who originally began trying to write a history of the beliefs in the flat earth from ancient times, but was shocked to find that there were no credible, unambiguous sources for the belief prior to the 19th century. His task then changed to writing a history of how the historians created and peddled the flat earth theory.

My impression of the Flat Earth Society is that they are a bunch of atheists who are trying to spoof their conception of religious nuts.

Max said...

Hi Looney,

Ah, yes...Fernando Colombo (his second son; born in 1488, mothered by his lover Beatriz Enríquez), may not have mentioned the flat earth theory, because of reasons that only he knew. Nevertheless, it is documented.
The best person to know all about Cristovão Colombo's life and what Europe believed the earth to be, at the time, was Diogo Colombo (Christopher's first son, fruit of his marriage to Filipa Moniz), who was appointed as 2nd admiral & Viceroy of India.

Europe believed not only that the earth was flat, but also that by the end of the Atlantic Ocean there was a cliff; despite that information, the Bourgeoisie and kings inspired by their wish to seek comercial expansion by sea (as a solution to solve an economic, political and social crisis) found a way to sponsor trips by sea to find new countries, new trading opportunities etc. But Portugal was the only country, at that time (around 1483) who had the financial means and who had the political centralization required to support such enterprise. Therefore King John II (Dom João II) was the first to start (with the Spice Trade) the great epoche entitled as "Os Descobrimentos" (the European age of Discovery).

Still, the "ecclesia" continued to affirm that the earth was flat and whomever declared the opposite would be considered a heretic.
However in 1522, it was proved finally that the earth was round (something that had been speculated since the era of Pythagoras), through the circum-navigation, started by the Portuguese Fernão de Magalhães (who died in 1521) and completed by the Spanish Juan Sebastián Elcano (in 1522).

This is well known and documented.

I would love to read the translated text if you wouldn't mind, thank you :)!

"My impression of the Flat Earth Society is that they are a bunch of atheists who are trying to spoof their conception of religious nuts."

Well, I don't understand them because now there is more than evidence that the earth is round...

Looney said...

"Still, the "ecclesia" continued to affirm that the earth was flat and whomever declared the opposite would be considered a heretic."

Can you find an original source for that claim? Professor Burton's assertion is that he investigated this thoroughly, as a professional historian, but didn't find a single 15th century reference to a flat earth theory that could be verified by an original source.

I will post the text from Ferdinand after I get the turkey in the oven!

Max said...

Hi Looney,

"Can you find an original source for that claim? Professor Burton's assertion is that he investigated this thoroughly, as a professional historian, but didn't find a single 15th century reference to a flat earth theory that could be verified by an original source."

On the Internet? No (unfortunately the Portuguese don't put these things online, and I looked for it yesterday); however I will look through my books of history to see where the originals can be found exactly.
Besides, these texts are not translated...

"I will post the text from Ferdinand after I get the turkey in the oven!"

All right, thank you! If I don't read them today, I will tomorrow!
You're cooking... :D!

Livingsword said...

Hi Looney…

Compared too much of the writing we have from antiquity there is a tremendous amount of dialogue in the New Testament (certainly Plato in his Socratic dialogues does also have much conversation). Luke and Acts together is an amazing omnibus of speeches and dialogue often blended into action which is quite unique…Then to read Paul’s writings about life etc during his Acts sojourns is extraordinary…

Livingsword said...

Looney and Max…

My you two are having a very interesting conversation here…

Livingsword said...

Looney and Max….

This may be of interest for this conversation:

Eratosthenes (276BC-194BC)
Eratosthenes knew that on the summer solstice at local noon in the Ancient Egyptian city of Swenet (known in Greek as Syene) on the Tropic of Cancer, the sun would appear at the zenith, directly overhead. He also knew, from measurement, that in his hometown of Alexandria, the angle of elevation of the Sun would be 1/50 of a full circle (7°12') south of the zenith at the same time. Assuming that Alexandria was due north of Syene he concluded that the distance from Alexandria to Syene must be 1/50 of the total circumference of the Earth. His estimated distance between the cities was 5000 stadia (about 500 geographical miles or 950 km). He rounded the result to a final value of 700 stadia per degree, which implies a circumference of 252,000 stadia. The exact size of the stadion he used is frequently argued. The common Attic stadion was about 185 m, which would imply a circumference of 46,620 km, i.e. 16.3% too large. However, if we assume that Eratosthenes used the "Egyptian stadion"[1] of about 157.5 m, his measurement turns out to be 39,690 km, an error of less than 1%.[2]

Posidonius (135BC-51BC)
Posidonius measured the Earth's circumference by reference to the position of the star Canopus. As explained by Cleomedes, Posidonius observed Canopus on but never above the horizon at Rhodes, while at Alexandria he saw it ascend as far as 7 1/2 degrees above the horizon (the arc between the latitude of the two locales is actually 5 degrees 14 minutes). Since he thought Rhodes was 5,000 stadia due north of Alexandria, and the difference in the star's elevation indicated the distance between the two locales was 1/48th of the circle, he multiplied 5,000 by 48 to arrive at a figure of 240,000 stadia for the circumference of the earth. While translating stadia into modern units of distance is problematic, as an ancient stadium could measure anywhere from about 157 to around 211 meters, it is generally thought that the stadium used by Posidonius was almost exactly 1/10 of a modern statute mile, near the middle of the ancient range. Thus Posidonius' measure of 240,000 stadia translates to 24,000 miles, not much short of the actual circumference of 24,901 miles.

For more….

Looney said...

LS, I wish that had been taught in school when I was a kid rather than the flat earth theory. It would have been great for applied math together with history. Eventually I need to get a copy of those writers on my bookshelf!

Livingsword said...

Hi Looney….

With our interests in “obscure” ancient writers many would think we are sick puppies…LOL