History and the Divine Sphere: Homer, Herodotus, and Thucydides

Last academic quarter I taught discussion sections for a course on Classical Greece, in which we studied Greek literature during the 5th century BCE, including the works of Herodotus (c. 484-425 BCE) — the first Western historian — and the historian Thucydides (c. 460-395 BCE) — who wrote only a generation after Herodotus. Part of what interests me about studying these authors is seeing how historical discourse first emerged as a formalized genre in antiquity. Furthermore, it is interesting to study the literature that came before Herodotus, to see how historical prose is different from previous mythology set in the past, such as Homer’s Iliad (8th century BCE). Both Herodotus and the Iliad discuss past events set in real places, but Herodotus writes in a critical and investigative style, employing historical methodology that drastically increases his reliability. I have written here before about the literary conventions and techniques that distinguish historical writing from other genres of ancient literature, but, in teaching sections for this course, I realized another very important aspect of historical writing that sets it apart from myth and storytelling.

For anyone who has read the Iliad, a distinctive aspect of the epic is that it relates events set both in the divine and human spheres. The poet narrates both the actions of mortals, who are in battle around the city of Troy, and the role of the gods, who are set on Olympus. The poet frequently transitions between these two spheres, so that when Zeus makes a decision on Olympus, we can see its effect down on Earth. For example, when Zeus decides to send a false dream to Agamemnon in Il. 2.1-47, telling him to attack the Trojans, the poet relates both Zeus’ plan to send the dream from Olympus and the dream reaching Agamemnon himself on Earth:

“Now all the other gods and men, lords of chariots, slumbered the whole night through, but Zeus was not holden of sweet sleep, for he was pondering in his heart how he might do honor to Achilles and lay many low beside the ships of the Achaeans. And this plan seemed to his mind the best, to send to Agamemnon, son of Atreus, a baneful dream.”

The poet thus explores the motivations of the gods through scenes and dialogues in which they relate their plans and perspective. The Iliad, which is a pre-historical epic, thus combines the divine sphere of the gods in Olympus with events on Earth, when telling a story about the past.

One of the first things I taught my students when we studied Herodotus’s Histories is an aspect of his work that scholars have long recognized: Herodotus does not describe events set in the the divine sphere. As a historian, Herodotus’ inquiry was limited solely to what evidence he could find for human events here on Earth. Unlike the poet, Herodotus did not have access to the gods, and thus, unlike the Iliad, his history is told solely from the mortal perspective. Herodotus would still include miracles and prophecies in his narrative, but we never see the gods operating behind the scenes. At most, the mortals can only witness miraculous events in his narrative, but they cannot see the gods or divine motives behind them. Thucydides is even more secular, as he removes miracles altogether from his narrative, and discusses historical events solely from a political and natural perspective. There are no gods, miracles, or divine forces in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Bear in mind that both of these authors are the earliest historians in Western history. They represent a trend in historical writing that literally goes all the way back to its earliest foundations.

Apologists, in arguing that they can “historically” prove the resurrection, often face the problem that miracles, like supernatural resurrections, are horribly improbable events. A common apologetic response to this problem is that the resurrection of Jesus is not so improbable, if God wants to raise Jesus from the dead. However, all the way from the time of Herodotus, historians have not had access to the will of the gods. In claiming that historians can claim that God wants to raise Jesus from the dead, apologists are thus violating a convention of historical discourse that has roots in the earliest developments of history as a formal method and literary genre.

Both Herodotus and Thucydides viewed Homer as a literary predecessor to their historical works, but also as a foil. Homer, in part, inspired the genre of history because he told the story of the Trojan War set in Greece’s past. But the Iliad is only an epic poem. Even if the Iliad discusses a real city and is possibly influenced by the memory of a distant war (for a discussion on the historicity of the Trojan War, see here), the poet nevertheless does not engage in critical investigation or historical analysis. The poet narrates the Trojan War from an omniscient and divine perspective through metered verse.

Herodotus, when writing in historical prose, used the Homeric epics for information about Greece’s distant past. For example, Herodotus discusses the abduction of Helen in book II of his Histories (2.116), but also disagrees with Homer that Helen ever went to Troy, opting for a version of the story where Helen instead remained in Egypt. Herodotus also accuses Homer of favoring the version where Helen went to Troy, since it would allegedly better suit the drama and epic of his narrative. The reality is that both Herodotus and the Iliad are probably incorrect, as a historical Helen very likely never existed and the alleged event is too far in the past to ever be known with any certainty today, regardless. In reporting different versions of events and discussing his methodology, however, Herodotus still reflects here a form of historical analysis. Herodotus was interested in not just telling a story about Helen, as in the Iliad, but investigated the event with whatever evidence he could find.

The historian Thucydides used the Homeric epics as well. In book II of the Iliad (2.484-759), the poet provides a catalog of all of the Greek ships and city states that participated in the Trojan War. Since the Iliad is not a historical work, the number is not discerned through historical documents or evidence, but is divinely revealed through the Muses:

“Tell me now, ye Muses that have dwellings on Olympus — for ye are goddesses and are at hand and know all things, whereas we hear but a rumor and know not anything — who were the captains of the Danaans and their lords? But the common folk I could not tell nor name, nay, not though ten tongues were mine and ten mouths and a voice unwearying, and though the heart within me were of bronze, did not the Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus that beareth the aegis, call to my mind all them that came beneath Ilios. Now will I tell the captains of the ships and the ships in their order.”

Thucydides, like Herodotus, mentions the Trojan War and uses the Iliad as a source for his information. In book I of his History of the Peloponnesian War (1.10), Thucydides uses Homer’s catalog to calculate the number of Greek soldiers who participated in the Trojan War. Thucydides is not uncritically credulous towards Homer, however, and estimates that he has probably overstated the size of the war. But, more importantly, Thucydides estimates the size of the war by using a previous source and text, rather than just appealing to the Muses. Once more, by using documentary evidence here on Earth, Thucydides writes about a past event, without appealing to or claiming knowledge of the divine.

I have provided the two examples above to show how historical discourse, from its earliest origins, differs from the writing of mythology. Now I shall discuss further how the divine sphere disappears. Herodotus does not shy away from miracles. For example, when the Persian army attacks Delphi in book VIII (8.36-41), Herodotus relates the following events:

“Now when the barbarians drew near and could see the temple, the prophet, whose name was Aceratus, saw certain sacred arms, which no man might touch without sacrilege, brought out of the chamber within and laid before the shrine. So he went to tell the Delphians of this miracle, but when the barbarians came with all speed near to the temple of Athena Pronaea, they were visited by miracles yet greater than the aforesaid. Marvelous indeed it is, that weapons of war should of their own motion appear lying outside in front of the shrine, but the visitation which followed was more wondrous than anything else ever seen. When the barbarians were near to the temple of Athena Pronaea, they were struck by thunderbolts from the sky, and two peaks broken off from Parnassus came rushing among them with a mighty noise and overwhelmed many of them. In addition to this a shout and a cry of triumph were heard from the temple of Athena.”

This descriptions includes a number of miracles relating to the temple of Athena. Herodotus, however, does not claim to know that Athena wished to stop the barbarians or sent down thunderbolts from the sky. The event is told solely from the human, mortal perspective. The historian cannot relate the divine motives or forces that were behind these alleged miracles. The most that can be claimed is that Herodotus (or his sources) believed that there had been miracles that occurred when the Persians attacked Delphi, but even Herodotus does not claim that he can know that Athena wanted to attack the Persians. This is very different from the description in the Iliad of Zeus sending a false dream to Agamemnon, quoted above, which relates Zeus’ motives from the divine sphere.

Bear in mind that the historian Thucydides, writing only a generation later, removes miracles from his historical narrative entirely! Thucydides only discusses political, economic, and geographical forces influencing human events. Thucydides no doubt thought that even Herodotus had gone too far in adding mythical elements, such as miracles, to his history. Not only does Thucydides hold back from claiming what the gods would want to do, but he removes all divine elements from his history entirely, since, as a historian, he can only work with human testimony and documents. It should be noted that modern historians today follow Thucydides’ historical approach more so than Herodotus’.

In his debate with NT scholar Bart Ehrman, apologist William Lane Craig made the following argument that Jesus’ resurrection would not be improbable, if God acted to raise Jesus from the dead:

“That Jesus rose naturally from the dead is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think that it is improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead.”

Bart Ehrman responded with the following counter-argument to the notion that God’s role increases the probability of Jesus rising from the dead:

“This is a theological claim about Jesus, not a historian’s claim. Historians are unable to establish what God does. That’s the work of the historian. So, too, with his concluding inference that God raised Jesus from the dead. This is a theological conclusion. It’s not a historical one. It’s a statement about God.”

Based on Western historical practice, all the way from its beginnings in the 5th century BCE, I have to fully agree with Ehrman. Historical prose, as a form of discourse, does not claim to know divine wills or actions, but solely relates human events here on Earth. This can be shown in the history of Herodotus, who, even when he describes miracles, does not claim to know the role or wills of the gods. This can be seen even more so in the writings of Thucydides, who removes both the gods and miracles from his history entirely!

I am not appealing to some post-Enlightenment, post-Hume trend here to argue that history can say nothing about miracles. I am appealing to the earliest trends in Western historical literature to show that historians cannot make claims about God or the divine sphere. Those are theological and philosophical questions, which extend beyond the scope of historical epistemology. To say that God raised Jesus from the dead, or to assume that God wanted to raise Jesus from the dead, is not a historical statement nor can it be assumed as a historical premise. That must be a theological and philosophical question alone. Of course, without assuming that God wanted to raise Jesus from the dead, the probability of a miraculous resurrection is very low, even as Craig acknowledges. That is why history cannot say with good probability that Jesus rose from the dead (in addition to the fact that professional history virtually never makes claims about paranormal events, as I discuss in a previous article).

This does not mean that people cannot believe and have faith that God raised Jesus from the dead. But that must be a theological and philosophical commitment. I appeal to Herodotus — the father of history — and to Thucydides — the father of political realism — to make this judgement. Neither of these men were post-Enlightenment or anti-supernaturalists. Both were simply historians who recognized the limits of historical discourse and paved the way for how history has been practiced for over the last two thousand years, and is still practiced professionally today.

-Matthew Ferguson

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13 Responses to History and the Divine Sphere: Homer, Herodotus, and Thucydides

  1. Ken Browning says:

    I am thoroughly enjoying your work in this area. One question: How do we know that Thucydides was not an anti-supernaturalist?

    • Hey Ken,

      Thucydides’ religious views are somewhat difficult to discern, since we practically only have his historical work to gauge them with. While there were a few atheists and naturalists in his time period and region, I would hold off from the conclusion that, simply because Thucydides removes miracles and the supernatural from his historical narrative, he must therefore himself be an atheist or anti-supernaturalist.

      Here is what Borimir Jordan in “Religion in Thucydides” has to say:

      “Modern criticism rightly regards Thucydides as the model of the rational and objective historian who made it his first duty to leave the finger of God out of history and to tidy up the mundane events of the human drama. The contrast between his work with respect to the gods and the histories of his predecessor Herodotus and his successor Xenophon is plain; it is a contrast so great, in fact, as to provoke the observation from some (e.g. K. J. Dover) that Thucydides may well have been an atheist. Dover has been followed by some in this opinion, but most other scholars have been more cautious. To judge from their asides and other casual remarks in the literature, this group appears to regard Thucydides as an agnostic, in the modern sense of the word. I have, however, nowhere seen this view argued in print at any length and in detail.”

      Through an analysis for relevant passages about religion in Thucydides’ historical work, Jordan comes to the following conclusion:

      “To sum up, Thucydides is surprisingly well informed on topics of religious history and religious institutions. There is evidence that he conducted research on these topics: he quotes some oracular responses verbatim, others he reproduces in accurate paraphrase; he is also familiar with certain formulaic religious expressions. On the whole Thucydides treats religion much as he treats economics and finance, military organization, and constitutional procedures: taking much for granted as known to his audience, he is selective, limiting himself to what he considered significant and pertinent to his overall design. With respect to religion, he could have taken much more for granted than he actually does, for religion and its institutions were a common ground, familiar to all the Greeks to a far greater extent than, say, the internal politics and constitutional history of a given city state. Yet he takes the trouble to retail and explain a not inconsiderable amount of religious facts and reports no less than fifteen oracular pronouncements. But Thucydides does more than that. He often makes connections, sometimes indirect, between religion and mundane events. Several of the most interesting religious diagnoses (of political action), a recent writer observes, come from Thucydides. In doing all that, he shows that he is a student of religion in a deeper sense. He understands the importance of religion and appreciates the powerful role which it plays in human affairs. His discourse indicates that he is capable of first-rate insights into the psychology of religious people. For him religion is the underlying fabric which holds human society together and he shows how a prolonged and vicious war gradually destroys that fabric as it destroys so much besides.”

      That is the most I think we can say about Thucydides’ views on religion. If he was an anti-supernaturalist, he was not overt about it, nor do I think that the absence of miracles in his historical narrative necessarily implies that Thucydides’ personal religious views must have been anti-supernaturalist. Then again, he may have been, but it is difficult to know, since we really only have his historical work to go off of and it is somewhat inconclusive for telling us about Thucydides’ private religious views.

  2. MikeN says:

    Just want to say great to see you back. You were missed!

  3. Ken Browning says:

    Thank you for this cogent and thorough explanation.

  4. flip says:

    Although I agree with your general conclusions – as much as a layperson with no reading of history can – I find the reliance on argument from antiquity … Odd and not really convincing. Though I’m not sure you can avoid it since we are talking about antiquity after all.

    • Hey Flip,

      I could see how this would be an odd article, if this were my only argument against historical apologetics. But allow me to explain my angle…

      In my upcoming book I plan to lay out a number of arguments for why investigating the claim of Jesus’ resurrection is different from all ordinary historical claims. Other examples for how it is unusual will be that professional history virtually never makes claims about the paranormal and the resurrection is an extraordinarily improbable event. This argument about the case for the resurrection going against the historical conventions of Herodotus and Thucydides is just one piece of the puzzle.

      My angle is that I want to make it first clear that proving the resurrection of Jesus is NOT like proving an ordinary historical claim, contrary to what apologists like Craig, Habermas, and Licona claim. This can be shown through a number of examples. Considering that Craig’s resurrection argument wouldn’t even fly with the methodologies of Herodotus and Thucydides (the two oldest historians in Western history), I think it is fair to say that what Craig is trying to do is extraordinary. In order to do it, he would have to undo thousands of years of standard historical practice.

      After I demonstrate that the resurrection is unlike all ordinary historical claims, I will then debunk the evidence and arguments that apologists use to support it. But I want it to be clear, from the get go, that talking about Jesus’ resurrection is not the same as discussing any old past event. It is a far more extraordinary claim and thus entail a much larger onus probandi.

      • hello sir

        i have a question about the greek word used for jesus’ resurrection

        how do ancient greeks use the word for thier saints and gods?

        • Well, the Greek verb for Jesus’ resurrection, as used in 1 Cor 15:4, is ἐγείρω (“to rise/awake”). Likewise, the Greek noun ανάστασις (“to stand again”) is used for Jesus’ resurrection.

          The Greek word for “saintly” is εὐσεβἠς and the Greek for “god/s” is θεός/θεοί.

          But I am not really sure what you are asking. Do you have a specific passage in mind for which you have questions about the Greek?

          • “ἐγείρω (“to rise/awake”). Likewise, the Greek noun ανάστασις (“to stand again”) is used for Jesus’ resurrection.”

            in the pre-christian works of the greeks is there mention of greek saints coming back to life and are these words “ἐγείρω ” “ανάστασις ” used when describing thier awakening?

          • Well, to answer your question one would have to start with a TLG search of ἐγείρω and ανάστασις, and would then have to do an extensive philological analysis of each word’s usage among Greek authors before the NT, to see if either word was used as part of specialized vocabulary associated with resurrection. That would take more time than what I have to answer a blog comment.

            However, my instinct is that neither word was specifically associated with the idea of resurrection before the NT. The reason why is that words like ἐγείρω (“to rise/awaken”) were common vocabulary and used in a variety of contexts. In the case of ανάστασις, I know that Richard Carrier argues that the word was not specifically associated with the Jewish idea of the resurrection:

            http://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/improbable/responses.html#anastasis

            Carrier also provides examples of when ανάστασις was used for Pagan notions of awakening/resurrection:

            “Aeschylus uses it to refer to the mere revival of a corpse (Eumenides 648). Lucian uses it to refer to the resurrection of Tyndareus by Asclepius (De Saltatione 45). Plotinus uses it to refer to the soul’s “resurrection” from the body (Enneads 3.6.6).”

            In short, both words could be used to describe simply awakening or standing up, a body being brought to life, or a soul being lifted to heaven. To understand which usage is intended, one would have to look at the surrounding context rather than any specialized vocabulary.

            What made you ask this question?

  5. “What made you ask this question?”

    some christian apologists in the city centre in uk london tried to argue that no one in history has come back to life like their god did, but i think this is a christian exaggeration.

    • Ah, well certainly there were stories about resurrections before Jesus (e.g. Romulus). However, as Carrier discusses in the link I posted above, there was no specialized vocabulary used to distinguish different types of resurrection from each other.

      There certainly were different views about resurrection in antiquity, but these are not expressed with specialized vocabulary, but instead through multi-word descriptions.

      For example. Josephus discusses the Essene view of the resurrection in BJ 2.154-55.

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