I first read Caesar’s Gallic Wars in an abbreviated version when I was fifteen or sixteen years old. My interest in the book was formulated when I read the Classic Comic Caesar’s Conquests in the late nineteen fifties. I haven’t thought much about the book for many years and probably wouldn’t have thought about it again except that I stumbled on some information about the history of the book that caught my interest.
The Gallic Wars lasted from 58 B.C. to 50 B.C. and revolved around Caesar’s conquest for Rome of much of modern day France, Belgium, and Briton. Caesar composed the last of the books on the war around 44 B.C. Now here is the interesting part; for years scholars believed there were only ten manuscripts in existence regarding the war but over the years almost two hundred and fifty manuscripts have been uncovered with the earliest dating from the ninth century and the majority from the fifteenth century.
If we take the manuscript from the ninth century as our earliest known writing on the Gallic Wars, and the last of Caesar’s writings on the wars was 44 B.C. then we have a gap of 950 years between the event and the first manuscript.
So, what does this mean? It needs to be noticed that scholars have used the book quite extensively to trace the historical events that took place in Gaul during the time of Caesar’s conquests. Caesar’s battle strategy and victories are all documented in his writings and of great interest and importance in understanding the events surrounds his wars in Gaul.
In the fifteen hundreds Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire used the book to better understand battle strategy. With the invention of the printing press, Gallic Wars became a popular and well-published book. The bottom line is that scholars have long accepted the authenticity and historical data of the book even though there are only two hundred and fifty existing manuscripts of the writings and the earliest of these is still nine hundred and fifty years after the event.
For scholars who study into these things, such as the authenticity of books like Gallic Wars, two factors help determine the accuracy of the work. They ask “how many manuscripts survive,” and “what amount of time exists between the original writing and the first known manuscripts?” These questions are imperative in helping to authenticate the accuracy of the original writings. The more manuscripts they have, the easier it is to determine what might have been original or what might have been added. And of course the closer to the event the existing manuscripts are dated, the greater probability that they most accurately represent the data found in the original manuscripts that have long been lost.
Other great works of the ancient world such as The Peloponnesian War and The Histories of Herodotus have even fewer existing manuscripts than does Gallic Wars and even longer times between their writings and first known manuscripts. Yet, scholars accept these manuscripts as accurate and authentic.
However, scholars not only look at the internal evidence to try and prove a book written hundreds of years before the first existent manuscript of that book is authentic, but also look at external evidence. In other words they ask, are these books quoted by other authors as authentic, accurate, and reliable?
Another source of evidence would be through archaeology. If bones are found at a site where, for example, Caesar wrote that he fought the Gaul’s and there are archaeological signs that there was a battle then that is good evidence that the event written about happened at that spot. This would help authenticate the reliability of a manuscript and reveal that, even though the original manuscript is lost, the one we do have is more than likely an accurate reproduction of the original.
The internal evidence they look at is based upon questions such as “is the book true to itself,” “does it contradict itself in places,” “are the facts distorted by bias,” and “are the characters mentioned real?”
In his book The Breathed God, Josh McDowell points out that good scholarship when studying the reliability of a book should follow three general rules. First, the book should be given the benefit of a doubt. For example, critics of the Bible often come with a built in prejudice that says things like miracles can’t happen therefore the Bible cannot be accurate or authentic. The burden of proof should be on the critic to prove her problem with the text based upon evidence, not just dismiss a book because her own personal beliefs don’t allow for the events described to have happened.
Second, scholars look to see if there are any known contradictions. McDowell points out that if, when reading Gallic Wars it is stated that Caesar never married but we know from other sources that he was married, then it would be fair to question the accuracy of the document. However, there is a catch, in order to say positively that something within the manuscript is impossible to reconcile it has to be proven that it truly is impossible to reconcile, not just that it is hard to reconcile.
The third internal test is based around the use of primary sources. Numerous historical writers, for instance, wrote very loosely about the events that took place around them or wrote about places they had never been or events that had happened many years before while shuffling the events into their present situation. Literary scholars give greater credibility to people historically that were closer to eye-witnesses to the events described than people recording an event years past.
How does the Bible stack up to all these literary critiques? Is the Bible reliable or is it just a group of fables and myths jotted down by uneducated fishermen? Next post we will delve into the world of the Bible and try to answer some of the critic’s complaints.