Considering The Malice of Herodotus and Biblical Genre

One of the things that I find myself saying again and again to both clergy and parishioners is that moderns in general and modern Americans in particular seem to have real genre issues when it comes to the Bible.

Every act of reading happens within an interpretive frame. That is, we start making interpretive assumptions from literally the time we pick up a book until we close it and put it down. These interpretive assumptions shape what we find and how seriously we take it. Any book cover with a ripped bare-chested dude hovering over a voluptuous female automatically shunts the book into a certain interpretive category that shades what we find therein. This isn’t good or bad—it’s just how the interpretive process works.

I believe that one of the most important interpretive frames that we normally assume is genre—what kind of text we think we’re reading. For the most part this works when we pick up texts from our time because from the time we begin to read, we learn genre cues. Sometimes they’re book covers, sometimes they’re stock phrases: Once upon a time… Three nuns walk into a bar… We can automatically categorize these with no problems. It’s when we come to texts from radically different times and cultures that we run into problems. Like—biblical texts.

I see three major issues with our interpretive assumptions about genre when it comes to the Scriptures First, the genre cues aren’t the ones familiar to us. What does “Once upon a time…” look like in Hebrew? Are we completely missing the genre cues an ancient author would have thought so obvious? Second, the genres into which we map and categorize texts are not necessarily those of the past. Furthermore, the categories that do overlap don’t have the same contours. More on this below… Third, because of our inculturation as modern Christians, we have inherited “Bible/Scripture” as a distinct genre of its own that, in effect, tends to mentally “overwrite” the other genre options. Thus, when we pick up the chronicles of the reign of Esarhaddon and pick up 1 Kings, we tend to place them in different genres: “ancient history cum propaganda” and “Bible.”

The problem raised by these category errors is that we mistake the nature and intent of the texts. Trying to learn history from the visions of the Book of Daniel is analogous to trying to learn history from a bodice-ripping romance novel. Yes, it has a historical-ish frame, but that’s so not the point!

There are two steps that we can take as readers of the Bible to help overcome this issue. The first is simply being aware of our interpretive assumptions. Once we realize that we are making assumptions, we can examine them and get a sense of how on target they may be. Unquestioned assumptions aren’t always wrong, but it’s always better to examine them especially if something like your immortal soul is on the line…

The second step is to become more familiar with ancient genres from the inside. It’s when we start reading comparable and comparative ancient texts that we start getting a sense of what an ancient genre looked like, how authors of that time understood it, and what the stock tropes and genre cues really are. And that brings us to The Malice of Herodotus.

When considering the New Testament and texts analogous to it, one of my favorite authors is Plutarch. Essayist, moralist, and biographer, anyone who works with the gospels should, in my opinion, be familiar with his works. Folks with a classical education will be familiar with his essays on the lives of the great Greeks and Romans. However, he also wrote a host of other essays on moral, religious, and literary topics. I recently came across the Malice of Herodotus, a text of his that I had never encountered before. This is a great text because it exposes an educated author contemporary with the writing of the New Testament thinking out loud about the craft of writing history and biography. (Not a common thing, although Lucian does it too in his aptly titled The Way to Write History—he’s a satirist so watch your step…)

Plutarch is annoyed because of the way that Herodotus paints his people, the Boeotians, in a bad light because they sided with the Persians in the eponymous Persian Wars. As a result, he accuses Herodotus of malice and in making his case he gives us an interesting set of both explicit and implicit genre rules for the category of history in his day. This online version of On the Malice of Herodotus helpfully pulls out to the side Plutarch’s eight major charges against Herodotus.

What I take away from this text is an even greater certainty that for Plutarch history is a sub-discipline of moral philosophy. Note how many of the signs of malice pertain to the depiction of vice and virtue… In particular, I draw your attention to sign 6. This is, in my estimation, the great difference between modern (and especially popular/populist) history and classical history:

An historical narration is also more or less guilty of malice, according as it relates the manner of the action; as if one should be said to have performed an exploit rather by money than bravery, as some affirm of Philip; or else easily and without any labor, as it is said of Alexander; or else not by prudence, but by Fortune, as the enemies of Timotheus painted cities falling into his nets as he lay sleeping. For they undoubtedly diminish the greatness and beauty of the actions, who deny the performer of them to have done them generously, industriously, virtuously, and by themselves.

Digging into Plutarch’s claim here (especially when you couple it with sign 5), this criterion looks like nothing more than an explicit preference for moral instruction over against the facts of history. That is, Plutarch argues that whenever motives are attributed they should always be the most noble even when other motives are available and even more likely. If there’s a conflict between the two, Plutarch is willing to sacrifice “historicity” for the sake of moral edification…

What does this mean for us as readers of the New Testament? It reminds us that we cannot assume that the purpose of historical narrative in Antiquity is the same as ours. There is overlap—no doubt—but modern categories of what is considered edifying and necessary for “good” history cannot be mapped directly onto ancient texts.

5 Replies to “Considering The Malice of Herodotus and Biblical Genre”

  1. Fascinating. But couldn’t his point instead be that these other interpretations – i.e., money, ease, fortune – are simply wrong? Or, at least, only part of the story? And wouldn’t his being Greek, and then Roman, be a different point of view, though, too, from somebody like Paul or other New Testament writers?

    I’m not arguing this, I’m asking; I don’t know so much about this. Maybe I should read the whole thing first, too….

    Very interesting, anyway.

  2. Important as it is to be sensitive to the genre and author’s intent, I think the modern tendency to “pidgeonhole” can be just as misleading, expecially when its end is not to understand, but to dismiss.

    It’s an odd coincidence that you mention Plutarch because I’ve been trying to spend some time with his Lives lately. They do indeed make an instructive parallel to the roughly-contemporary Gospels. But I don’t know if that fact that his lives are not what we would define as nineteenth century scientific history denudes them of their historical value. I remember a lecture I went to, where the speaker made yet again the assertion that the gospels are not history or biography, in the modern sense. Afterwards I asked him whether, by those criteria, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall was history, or Boswell’s Life of Johnson was biography. He thought a moment and said, No, they weren’t. It rather made me question the use to which these categories are put.

    Even in Plutarch there is a consciousness of varying historicity. I have just finished his Life of Theseus and have begun the Life of Pericles. Plutarch certainly knows, and states, that Theseus is a very different kind of figure than Pericles. He likens him to the outer edges of old maps, where the reliability of one’s knowledge drops of rather precipitously. The point being, I suppose, that even within a single literary work by a single author with a unitary aim, there is not a simple consistency of genre.

  3. bls,

    Plutarch didn’t have any better historical data to work with—he’s writing about events that had happened 500 years ago… As for the Greek point, learned culture in the period meant Greek education. That is, both education from Greek sources and education in the Greek language. Yes, Paul and the others were Jewish—but they were reading and writing in Greek.

    Rick,
    I’m certainly not suggesting that these texts have no value as sources of historical data. Instead, I’m suggesting that Plutarch’s purpose in recording historical data is not to teach the events of history. Instead, it’s to show how people in the past acted either wise or foolishly and about how our character can be formed to either share their virtues or avoid their vices. And, yes, Plutarch is well aware of the differences in reliability between his various sources. But his goal remains biography as a model of virtue.

    C.,
    I’m often of a mind that the modern turn to revisionist historiography does seem to take the opposite tack from Plutarch—assume the worst about human motives unless there’s overwhelming evidence to the contrary. As Christians, of course, we see both sides: we need as many good examples as we can get, but sin is always prowling at the door.

  4. “Plutarch’s purpose in recording historical data is not to teach the events of history. Instead, it’s to show how people in the past acted either wise or foolishly and about how our character can be formed to either share their virtues or avoid their vices.”

    I agree. But I would add that a great deal of modern history, good, scientifically-sound history, is also written for that purpose, implicitly or explicitly. And I don’t think that that’s a bad thing.

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