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The Recent History of History

March 24, 2008

The March 24th New Yorker has an article on “Fake memoirs, factual fictions, and the history of history” by Jill Lepore entitled Just the Facts, Ma’Am. Lepore is an American historian Harvard and as such her piece is concerned primarily with the path of historians and novel writers in recent history. However, she has an interesting tangent on ancient historians that comes via her discussion of John Burrow’s A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century.

Invention was a hallmark of ancient history, which was filled with long, often purely fictitious speeches of great men. It was animated by rhetoric, not by evidence. Even well into the eighteenth century, not a few historians continued to understand themselves as artists, with license to invent.

While this is self-evident to anyone who has spent sometime with Thucydides or Herodotus, many students of the Bible seem to ignore such thorny issues. I might have to pick up Burrow’s book and see what else he has to say.

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