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.