Historians in the ancient world (Psalm 132)

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Illustration: Suetonius

The poet of Psalm 132 looked back to the covenant with David and to the history of the ark of the covenant as the basics for his prayer – a reflection that the Bible is rooted in history, not theology divorced from human events and cultures.

The works of ancient historians, because they provide context, are of great value in Biblical studies. Important historians include:

  • Herodotus of Halicarnassus (ca. 484-425 B.C.): His great work is called the Historia (“investigation”). An account of the wars between the Greeks and the Persians, his work includes other stories as well, including an interesting, if not fully credible, account of ancient Egyptian culture.
  • Thucydides (ca. 460-400 B.C.): Perhaps the greatest ancient historian, this Greek general wrote a lucid and gripping account of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) between the Athenians and the Sparta alliance. His work, which models scrupulous research and careful writing, has survived intact but ends abruptly.
  • Manetha: Manetha, an Egyptian priest who lived during the reign of Ptolemy (305-282 B.C.), complied a history of Egypt. Unfortunately, his work has survived only in fragments, as quoted by othewr ancient writers (e.g. Josephus and Eusebius). His division of Egyptian history into 30 dynasties is still followed.
  • Berosus: The first true historian of the Mesopotamian region was this Babylonian priest. In about 290 B.C. he authored three books in Greek on Babylonian history. Berosus’ history also survives only in pieces, as cited by Josephus ans Eusebius. His original work covered the history of the region from the mythological past to the Assyrians, Babylonians ans Persians.
  • Demetrius the Chronographer (third century B.C.): Demetrius, a Jewish historian, recorded the history of his people, focusing on Biblical Israel and using the Septuagint as his priary source. He desired to illuminate the Bible’s historical background and to resolve exegetical difficulties. His work too survives only in fragments.
  • Flavius Josephus (ca. A.D. 37-100): Josephus was the most famous Jewish historian. His History of the Jewish War, describing the A.D. 66-70 war between Judea and Rome, ranks with Thucydides’ history as one of the greatest ancient historical works. Josephus, of a priestly background (a Pharisee), began the war as a combatant for the losing side. He also wrote a chronology of the Jewish people from earliest times to nearly A.D. 100 (Antiquities of the Jews). Josephus used the Septuagint as his primary source for the Biblical period but was also influenced by Hellenistic culture. He is our chief source of information regarding Herod the Great, and he referred to John the Baptist, Jesus and James, the half-brother of Jesus, although the authenticity of his description of Jesus is disputed.
  • Polubius (ca. 200-118 B.C.): Although a Greek, Polybius was the greatest historian of early Rome. His history is a major source for the study of the Punic Wars (Rome vs. Carthage).
  • Appian of Alexandria (second century A.D.): Another Greek historian, he focused on the rise of the Roman Republic.
  • Publius Cornelius Tacitus (ca. A.D. 56-120): Tacitus was the primary historian of the Roman empire. His Histories and Annals focus on the imperial history of the first century A.D.
  • Dio Cassius (died ca. A.D. 229): His work described the history of Rome from its founding to the time of Alexander Severus (A.D. 222-235). Unfortunately, much of it has been lost.
  • Suetonius (ca. A.D. 69-112): Suetonius (The Lives of the Twelve Caesars), wrote a biography of the early Roman emperors.
  • Plutarch (ca. A.D. 46-119): Another biographer, he authored the Parallel Lives of Famous Greeks and Romans, a valuable resource for Greek and Roman history.
  • Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. A.D. 263-339): Eusebius was the church’s first great historian. His Ecclesiastical History, sometimes criticized for being more a defence of Christianity than a history, details chronologically the story of the rise of Christianity and is of enormous value.


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