On third-person narrative in Greco-Roman historiography and the Gospels

Al-Finlandi

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Faustus can hardly be so ignorant as not to have read or heard that narrators, when speaking of themselves, often use a construction as if speaking of another.

St Augustine, Contra Faustum, Book XVII

Jesus saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him.

Matthew 9:9

Skeptics of the Gospels often allege that they cannot be written by their traditional authors because they narrate the ministry of Jesus from a third-person perspective, especially in the cases of Matthew and John (traditionally ascribed to two Apostles from among the Twelve). This post is not a defense of the traditional authorship of the Gospels, but simply serves to illustrate the custom of using third-person narrative (illeism) among contemporary (and earlier) authors was widespread and common, and thus this argument should not be used to discount the traditional authorship of the Gospels. All below examples are taken from the excellent Perseus Digital Library.

Herodotus

Herodotus is often considered the first historiographer, best known for his Histories, usually dated to around 440 BC. The only explicit mention of Herodotus is found in the introduction:

This is the display of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, so that things done by man not be forgotten in time, and that great and marvelous deeds, some displayed by the Hellenes, some by the barbarians, not lose their glory, including among others what was the cause of their waging war on each other.

1.1

Thucydides

Thucydides is primarily known from his History of the Peloponnesian War, composed around 431 BC. Vast majority of the work is narrated in third person, the narrator (clearly Thucydides himself as seen from the prologue: Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians…from the evidence which I can
trust … I think that previous events were not great’), occasionally interjects in first person (eg. “I had the disease myself, and watched its operation in the case of others.” (2.48.3 in the context of a plague that struck Athens)) but never says something akin to “I Thucydides, saw xyz” and thus never explicitly identifies himself as the author, yet far as I know, no classicist questions the authorship of the work . Below are examples of third person narration throughout the History:

The party opposed to the traitors proved numerous enough to prevent the gates being immediately thrown open, and in concert with Eucles, the general, who had come from Athens to defend the place, sent to the other commander in Thrace, Thucydides, son of Olorus, the author of this history, who was at the isle of Thasos, a Parian colony, half a day’s sail from Amphipolis, to tell him to come to their relief…. Brasidas, afraid of succors arriving by sea from Thasos, and learning that Thucydides possessed the right of working the gold mines in that part of Thrace, and had thus great influence with the inhabitants of the continent, hastened to gain the town, if possible, before the people of Amphipolis should be encouraged by his arrival to hope that he could save them by getting together a force of allies from the sea and from Thrace, and so refuse to surrender… Thucydides put all in order at Eion to secure it against any present or future attack of Brasidas, and received such as had elected to come there from the interior according to the terms agreed on.


4.104, 105, 106

Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war, and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it. This belief was not without its grounds. The preparations of both the combatants were in every department in the last state of perfection; and he could see the rest of the Hellenic race taking sides in the quarrel; those who delayed doing so at once having it in contemplation.  Indeed this was the greatest movement yet known in history, not only of the Hellenes, but of a large part of the barbarian world—I had almost said of mankind. For though the events of remote antiquity, and even those that more immediately precede the war, could not from lapse of time be clearly ascertained, yet the evidences which an inquiry carried as far back as was practicable leads me to trust, all point to the conclusion that there was nothing on a great scale, either in war or in other matters.


1.1

However, at the end of his introduction, Thucydides makes it clear he’s talking as the author:

The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.

1.22

POLYBIUS

Polybius died around 117 BC, his Histories cover the period of 264-146 BC. Throughout the work he refers to himself in the third person in multiple places, even when he was a witness of the events described:

…the Achaeans, thinking the present worthy of their thanks, for the cost could not be much less than ten talents, gladly accepted the offer. Having come to this resolution, they selected Lycortas, Polybius, and Aratus, son of Aratus of Sicyon, to go on a mission to the king, partly to thank him for the arms which he had sent on a former occasion…

24.6

Gaius and Gnaeus were reported to have resolved, as soon as the Achaean congress was assembled, to accuse Lycortas, Archon, and Polybius, and to point out that they were opposed to the policy of Rome…

28.3

…they sent Eumenes and Dionysodorus to the Achaeans, asking a thousand foot and two hundred horse, with Lycortas to command the foot and Polybius the horse. They sent a message also to Theodoridas of Sicyon, urging him to hire them a thousand mercenaries.

29.23

Polybius advised [Demetrius] “not to stumble twice on the same stone,” but to depend upon himself and venture something worthy of a king; and he pointed out to him that the present state of affairs offered him many opportunities. Demetrius understood the hint, but said nothing at the time; but a short while afterwards consulted Apollonius, one of his intimate friends, on the same subject.

31.19

Other examples include 33.2 and 36.11.

Xenophon

Xenophon is another historian primarily known for his two histories on the Peloponnesian War, Anabasis and Hellenica, written circa 370 BC. Throughout the two works he consistently refers to himself as “Xenophon” or “Xenophon the Athenian” (and never identifies himself as “I, Xenophon” or in any other similar manner). Me and Farid of Farid Responds discussed Xenophon in particular extensively in an exchange some time ago, when I pointed out Xenophon refers to himself in the third person in both Anabasis and Hellenica, Farid offered no response. Here is a selection from among the many passages in the Anabasis:

There was a man in the army named Xenophon, an Athenian, who was neither general nor captain nor private, but had accompanied the expedition because Proxenus, an old friend of his, had sent him at his home an invitation to go with him…

3.1

 After the evening meal Proxenus and Xenophon chanced to be walking in front of the place where the arms were stacked…

2.4

As for Xenophon, he was inclined on some accounts to accept the command, for he thought that if he did so the greater would be the honour he would enjoy among his friends and the greater his name when it should reach his city, while, furthermore, it might chance that he could be the means of accomplishing some good thing for the army. 

6.1

There are dozens of other references the reader can verify.

JULIUS CAESAR

Probably the most well-known on this list, his Gallic Wars is entirely written from a third-person perspective:

When it was reported to Caesar that they were attempting to make their route through our Province he hastens to set out from the city, and, by as great marches as he can, proceeds to Further Gaul, and arrives at Geneva. 

1.7

Caesar, observing that several of his men were wounded, ordered the cohorts to ascend the mountain on all sides, and, under pretense of assailing the walls, to raise a shout: at which the besieged being frightened, and not knowing what was going on in other places, call off their armed troops from attacking our works, and dispose them on the walls. 

8.43

Again, examples could be multiplied.

JOSEPHUS

Probably the most interesting example in the context of the Gospels, Josephus is known primarily for his Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews, both written some decades after Jesus – the former in the 70’s AD and the latter a few decades later.

Although it’s true Josephus identifies himself in the prologue to the Jewish War (“I have proposed to myself, for the sake of such as live under the government of the Romans, to translate those books into the Greek tongue, which I formerly composed in the language of our country, and sent to the Upper Barbarians;  Joseph, the son of Matthias, by birth a Hebrew, a priest also, and one who at first fought against the Romans myself, and was forced to be present at what was done afterwards, [am the author of this work].”) he refers to himself throughout in the third person:

As Josephus was thus engaged in the administration of the affairs of Galilee, there arose a treacherous person, a man of Gischala, the son of Levi, whose name was John…

2.585

And now it was that Josephus perceived that the city could not hold out long, and that his own life would be in doubt if he continued in it…

3.193

Josephus thought, that if he resolved to stay, it would be ascribed to their entreaties; and if he resolved to go away by force, he should be put into custody.

3.203

Thus Josephus escaped in the war with the Romans, and in this his own war with his friends, and was led by Nicanor to Vespasian. But now all the Romans ran together to see him; and as the multitude pressed one upon another about their general, there was a tumult of a various kind; while some rejoiced that Josephus was taken, and some threatened him, and some crowded to see him very near; but those that were more remote cried out to have this their enemy put to death, while those that were near called to mind the actions he had done, and a deep concern appeared at the change of his fortune. Nor were there any of the Roman commanders, how much soever they had been enraged at him before, but relented when they came to the sight of him. Above all the rest, Titus’s own valor, and Josephus’s own patience under his afflictions, made him pity him, as did also the commiseration of his age, when he recalled to mind that but a little while ago he was fighting, but lay now in the hands of his enemies, which made him consider the power of fortune, and how quick is the turn of affairs in war, and how no state of men is sure; for which reason he then made a great many more to be of the same pitiful temper with himself, and induced them to commiserate Josephus. He was also of great weight in persuading his father to preserve him. However, Vespasian gave strict orders that he should be kept with great caution, as though he would in a very little time send him to Nero.

3.392

As before, many other examples can also be found.

CONCLUSION

Whilst I hope the above quotes make it clear that the practice of illeism (third person narrative) was not some fringe custom, but had widespread usage. The reason it was used was to give an air of objectivity to the narration, as if the author is detached from the events. I left out Hecataeus of Miletus – who also began his Geographies with “Hecataeus of Miletus says: I write down what I think is true, because the stories told by the Greeks are, in my opinion, ridiculous and countless.” – to not belabor the point, the practice was widespread by the time of Jesus, and would not be a necessary defeater against the traditional authorship of Matthew and John in particular. While it’s true the above-cited authors also refer to themselves as “I” in the narratives (something Matthew does not do, but see John 21:24-25), the lack of the first-person singular in Matthew in particular can easily be explained by 1) the brevity of the Gospel, the work is much shorter than Greco-Roman historiographical works and 2) the focus on Jesus, after all, while historical, the Gospels are first and foremost faith documents about Jesus, and I find myself – surprisingly – in agreement with Bart Ehrman who writes:

The Gospel writers thought that what was most important was the message they wanted to convey about the life, teachings, deeds, death, and resurrection of Jesus.   The authors did not want their own persons to “get in the way” of the message, and so they wrote their Gospels anonymously…their point had to do with the message they wanted to deliver, not with their own identity as authorities who could deliver it. There was no need to establish their authority. 

Glory to Jesus Christ!

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On third-person narrative in Greco-Roman historiography and the Gospels

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