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Did Greco-Roman historiographers tend to be discerning, critically evaluating their sources and their claims in various ways?

  • Our question

    Were ancient Mediterranean historians—especially those around the 1st century—decently capable or adept at critical thinking, and largely exemplify that capability in their own works? Even if they were plenty fallible, did they tend to be fairly discerning critics rather than gleefully and gullibly echoing rumors without a second thought, or regularly inserting undocumented conjecture as fact? Did they habitually exemplify a general confidence-inspiring healthy skepticism re their sources and claims they encountered? For example, did they tend to worry proportionately about 2nd and 3rd hand material, being on the alert for bias, advocating rational labor principles along the way?

  • Historians

    • Arnaldo Momigliano: “Methods had existed since the fifth century B.C.—that is, since the beginning of historiography in Greece—of getting correct information about the remote past. These methods were critical, in the sense that the user, after reflection and study, was satisfied as to their reliability. The first Greek historian, Hecataeus (end of the sixth century), had developed methods of correcting and rationalizing many mythical stories. Herodotus knew how to go about Egypt and other countries and to ask about their antiquities. Even Thucydides used ancient poetry and archaeological and epigraphical evidence to formulate conclusions about the state of archaic Greek society and about specific events of the past. Chronological problems were systematically dealt with by Hippias and Hellanicus at the end of the first century. Later, the practice of consulting ancient texts and of criticizing ancient traditions was vigorously pursued by Hellenistic scholars. The Romans themselves—as their antiquarian tradition shows, from Varro in the first century B.C. to Virgil's commentator Servious at the beginning of the first century A.D.—knew very well how to collect reliable facts about the past.” [Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography (Wesleyan, 1975), 162-163.]
“Yes, after all…
  • Historians, in-text, judged claim & source reliability

    Greco-Roman historiographers often evaluated and discussed the reliability of their sources/claims mid-text in their histories.

    This article covers 7 categories full of examples...

    • E.g. Historians weighed in on sources.
    • E.g. Historians might criticize sources as ignorant, lazy, biased etc.
    • E.g. Historians oft urged caution re biased reports.
    • E.g. Historians oft urged caution re implausible reports.
    • E.g. Historians oft dismissed or urged caution re older reports.
    • E.g. Historians oft helped mine older accounts for truths (ejecting the rest).
    • E.g. Historians cross-checked & helped readers assess competing accounts.

    This is relevant because it is a live demonstrate of their critically examining sources.

  • Historians advocated good historiographical principles

    Some historians offered advice or principles for doing historiography right, and in general the principles align with modern values (with minor exceptions that we can be on the look-out for).

    • Ephorous (405-330 BC): “We consider most trustworthy those who give most detail ‘about contemporary events. But we believe that those who write in this fashion about ancient events are completely unpersuasive. We postulate that it is not probable that all of the deeds or the greater part of the speeches were kept in [exact] memory for so great a span of time.’” [Fragmente der griechischen Historiker 70 F9]
    • Polybius (200-118 BC): “[When it is not] possible for a single man to have seen with his own eyes… the only thing left for an historian is to inquire from as many people as possible, to believe those worthy of belief and to be an adequate critic of the reports that reach him." [Histories 12.4c.4-5]
    • Polybius (200-118 BC): “…for a good man should love his friends and his country… but he who assumes the character of a historian must ignore everything of the sort… speak good of his enemies and honour them with the highest praises while criticizing and even reproaching roundly his closest friends [if that’s the truth]. [The Histories 1.14]
    • Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD): “…flatteries or fictions …men who extol the Romans, nor will I determine to raise the actions of my countrymen too high; but I will prosecute the actions of both parties with accuracy…” [The Wars of the Jews 1.6-9]
    • Lucian (120-180+ AD): “The historian's one task is to tell the thing as it happened. This he cannot do, if he is Artaxerxes's physician trembling before him, or hoping to get a purple cloak… A fair historian, a Xenophon, a Thucydides, will not accept that position. [How to Write History 1. 39]

    This is relevant because these recommended principles likely represent the historian’s own modus operandi, and these principles are themes we repeatedly find among ancient Greco-Roman writers of history.

  • Historians strove to produce 1st-hand-as-possible history

    Ideal Greco-Roman historiographers worked hard to relay honest witness testimony, and in their eyes: the more direct/1st hand the testimony was, the better it was.

    This page analyzes examples and 6 arguments…

    • Histories DID get witness approval and/or close.
    • Historians oft say “witness testimony only!”
    • Lying historiographers pretended to be or use witnesses.
    • Ancients prize testimony being 1st hand as possible.
    • Greco-Roman histories self-claim to be true.
    • Ancients strove to echo “from beginning” witnesses.

    This is relevant because it is clear enough that getting to 1st hand testimony (or close as possible) requires critically examining sources. There are several “tells” which suggest that a given source actually does or does not trace back to what was truly seen.

  • Historians oft felt 2nd-3rd hand etc. unacceptable

    Greco-Roman historiographers tended to lambast the use of hearsay in their reports (especially when witnesses were available).

    This page analyzes 4 arguments:

    • Historians insist “ONLY share/relay 1st hand info.”
    • That’s wrapped into the definition of historia” (ἱστορία).
    • Historians say hearsay is a last resort.
    • Historians labored to produce direct witness-based history.
    • Historians usually stuck to writing in the witness-age.

    This is relevant because we can presume they weren’t overwhelming hypocrites, i.e. they strove to discern reliable (qualified) witnesses, and this involved examining them and what they say.