Herodotus and the Bible

By Wayne Jackson

Herodotus was a Greek historian of the fifth century B.C. It is believed that he lived approximately 484-425 B.C. For a number of years he traveled throughout the Persian empire, Egypt, and Scythia observing the culture of these ancient peoples. In his later life, Herodotus lived in Athens, finally settling in Italy where he spent the remainder of his days refining his masterpiece, The Persian Wars.

As a consequence of this work, Cicero dubbed him “the father of history.” His literary efforts consisted of nine books dealing with the Greek-Persian wars (500-479 B.C.), together with a history of the customs and geography of these combatants.

In his effort to accomplish this feat, he went further and sought to give, as an introduction to the story, the whole history of the antique world as it was then known. This material occupies the first six of his nine books.

He is generally viewed as the first writer to so unify the record of facts as to raise historical narrative to the level of literature. It should be noted, however, that his history was written in an age that lacked an abundance of solid factual documentation; his work is grounded, therefore, largely in oral tradition.

In numerous instances, the narratives of the Old Testament and those of Herodotus cross trails. Do the writings of this Greek historian have any bearing on the text of the Bible? Indeed they do.

Liberal writers have long claimed that many of the Old Testament records do not actually possess the antiquity they claim. Some of them are alleged to have come from a much later period than they claim. What shall be said in response to these charges? What does the evidence actually indicate?

The documents of the Old Testament frequently appeal to cultural elements and ancient events. These should be consistent with the eras from which they purport to come. These, thus, are checkable matters. Do the biblical writings bear those marks of accuracy which one has a right to expect if they are genuine historical records reflecting the background of the Hebrew people within a given time frame? We confidently affirm that they do, and the writings of Herodotus become an important source of information in this controversy.

The Bible, Herodotus, and Egypt

As every serious Bible student knows, the activities of the Egyptian and the Israelite people come together several times in ancient history. From the time of Abraham through the period of the exodus, there was considerable familiarity between Egypt and the Hebrews. Consider the following examples which provide a sense of integrity to the Jewish Scriptures:

The common title of the Egyptian rulers was “Pharaoh” (Genesis 39:1; Exodus 5:1), meaning “the great house.” Herodotus mentions an Egyptian ruler called “Pheron” (ii.111), a name or title strikingly similar to the foregoing. In Genesis, the Pharaoh is represented as having great authority (40:3, 21-22; 41:34, 41-44). Similarly the Greek historian describes the supreme control of the Egyptian rulers who could arbitrarily make laws (ii.136, 177).

One recalls the lewdness of Potiphar’s wife who, though married, continuously sought to seduce the young Joseph (Genesis 39:7-10). Herodotus tells of an Egyptian ruler who, for the sake of performing an experiment, searched “at length” for a married woman “who had been faithful to her husband” (ii.111).

Pharaoh’s chief butler, with whom Joseph was imprisoned, dreamed of returning to his position and of squeezing ripe grapes into the king’s cup (Genesis 40:10-11). Some critics cite this as a biblical mistake, asserting that Herodotus declares that the Egyptians grew no vines (ii.77). However, the historian may have been alluding only to certain regions of Egypt, since elsewhere he specifically mentions the priests as drinking “wine made from the grape” (ii.37).

In the dream of the chief baker, the baker saw himself carrying baskets of bread upon his head (Genesis 40:16). Herodotus mentions that whereas the Egyptian women transported burdens upon their shoulders, the men carried them upon their heads (ii.35). This is the very opposite of the custom in many countries.

When Joseph received his estranged brothers into his house, they were given water with which to wash their feet (Genesis 43:24). There is the record of an Egyptian ruler who had a golden foot-pan “in which his guests” were provided water to wash their feet (ii.172).

The Mosaic narrative records that when Joseph’s brothers returned from Canaan with Benjamin, the ruling prince commanded his servants to slay animals and prepare a noon-time feast for his visiting kinsmen (Genesis 43:16). While some have contended that the Egyptians, due to their worship of animals, did not eat flesh, the evidence does not warrant that conclusion. Herodotus notes of certain priests: “[E]very day bread is baked for them of the sacred corn, and a plentiful supply of beef and of goose’s flesh is assigned to each” (ii.37). Elsewhere he describes how a sacrificial “steer” is prepared for ceremonial feasting (ii.40).

The Genesis account states that the Egyptians would not eat bread with the Hebrews, for such a practice was an abomination from their religious viewpoint (43:32). The Egyptians considered all foreigners unclean. Concerning the Greeks, the “father of history” writes: “[N]o native of Egypt, whether man or woman, will give a Greek a kiss, or use the knife of a Greek, or his spit, or his cauldron, or taste the flesh of an ox, known to be pure, if it has been cut with a Greek knife” (ii.41).

The medical profession in Egypt was highly advanced. Herodotus observed that medicine was specialized so that “each physician treats a single disorder” (ii.84). Jeremiah once chastised: “O virgin daughter of Egypt: in vain dost thou use many medicines; there is no healing for thee” (46:11).

When Jacob died, “physicians” were commanded by Joseph to embalm the patriarch (Genesis 50:2). The Greek historian gives an elaborate description of the embalming process which commenced with the removal of most of the brain with an iron hook through the nostrils, the balance being flushed out with drugs. The body cavity was filled “with the purest bruised myrrh, with cassia, and every other sort of spicery” (ii.86). One cannot but be reminded of that Ishmaelite caravan to which Joseph was sold. Headed down into Egypt, it was bearing “spicery and balm and myrrh” (Genesis 37:25; cf. John 19:39). The body was then put into a “wooden case” which had been “carved into the figure of a man.” Joseph’s body was placed in a coffin when he expired (Genesis 50:26). When Jacob died, “the Egyptians wept for him seventy days” (50:3). Herodotus describes how Egyptian men and women, during the mourning period, would wander the streets, beating their breasts (ii.85).

After Joseph died, a new king arose in Egypt who was not so favorably disposed toward the Hebrew people. The Israelites became slaves in a distant land. “Taskmasters” were set over them and they were employed in the manufacture of bricks made of mud (Exodus 1:14). Though stone was a ready building material in Egypt, Herodotus speaks of bricks made of mud (ii.136). These were used in ordinary dwelling houses, tombs, walls, etc. The bricks were made of river mud and straw, shaped in wooden molds and left to dry in the sun. The chemical decay of the straw within the clay formed an acid which gave the clay greater plasticity for brick-making. Remember that when the Israelites’ labor was intensified, they were forced to provide their own straw (Exodus 5:10-13). In the Oriental Institute in Chicago, there is a dried mud brick with protruding fragments of straw, stamped with the Cartouche (oval figure) of Rameses II.

When Moses was a baby, his mother hid him for three months, fearing the wrath of the Pharaoh. When she could conceal the child no longer, she made a small boat of bulrushes, i.e., the papyrus plant, and placed it at the edge of the Nile river (Exodus 2:3). The use of papyrus in making boats was distinctly Egyptian and not in vogue elsewhere. Herodotus mentions the use of papyrus in caulking Egyptian boats and in the manufacture of sails (ii.96).

The Bible, Herodotus, and Assyria

When Hezekiah was ruler of Judah, Sennacherib, king of Assyria, marched against Israel’s southern kingdom (see 2 Kings 18:13ff; Isaiah 36:1ff). According to his records, the monarch took forty-six Judean cities. In fact, he sent his army to Jerusalem where he boasted that he shut up Hezekiah “like a bird in a cage.” He did not, however, take the holy city. Why not? Because Jehovah intervened, in response to Hezekiah’s prayer, and destroyed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in one night (2 Kings 19:35).
Herodotus has a garbled account of this disaster that crippled the Assyrian forces. He records that Sennacherib marched against Egypt. During a certain night, though, field mice supposedly invaded the Assyrian camp and gnawed the quivers, bow strings, and leather shield handles, thus disarming the military force. As a consequence, many of the soldiers were killed and others fled (ii.141).

Dr. I. M. Price, who served as professor of Semitic languages and literature at the University of Chicago, noted that this account “has some basis, doubtless, in fact, and is an echo of some calamity to the Assyrian army” (1907, 191). Wood commented that the account provides “indirect confirmation of the biblical miracle” (1986, 306). Joseph P. Free observed: “There is no evidence in the archaeological records that Sennacherib ever returned to the region of Palestine” (1950, 209).

The Bible, Herodotus, and the Phoenicians

Phoenicia was a small country on the Mediterranean coast northwest of Canaan. Naturally, there was frequent contact between the Phoenicians and the Hebrew people. Again, the accuracy of the biblical descriptions of these people is forcefully demonstrated by the secular historical record.
The Old Testament represents the Phoenicians as skilled in the hewing of timber (1 Kings 5:6). They were fine craftsmen in gold, silver, brass, and iron. The king of Tyre made some of the vessels and pillars for Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 7:21-23). Herodotus once visited Tyre, a leading city of Phoenicia, and he described a temple as “richly adorned with a number of offerings, among which were two pillars, one of pure gold, the other of emerald, shining with great brilliancy at night” (ii.44). The historian commented that the people of Tyre boasted that their city had stood for 2,300 years. Isaiah appears to take note of this claim: “Is this your joyous city, whose antiquity is of ancient days?” (23:7).

Several Old Testament prophets foretold Tyre’s subjection to the Babylonians (see Jeremiah 25:22; 27:1-11; Ezekiel 26:1-28:19; 29:18-20; Zechariah 9:2ff). Isaiah declared that Tyre would be “forgotten seventy years,” but that after that period (likely the era of the Babylonian domination), the city would “return to her hire,” that is, her prosperity would resume (23:15-17). This is confirmed by Herodotus who notes that in the time of the Persian rulers, Darius Hystaspis and Xerxes, the Phoenicians were providing their ships as allies for Persian conquests (v.108; vii.89).

The Bible, Herodotus, and Babylon

Ancient Babylon was known as the “glory of the kingdoms” (Isaiah 13:19), indeed “the praise of the whole earth” (Jeremiah 51:41). Babylon’s beauty, strength, and prominence was unparalleled in the ancient world. The citadel seemed impregnable. Jeremiah alluded to Babylon’s massive fortifications (51:53, 58). Herodotus says that the city was enclosed by great walls 350 feet high and 75 feet thick (i.178). Isaiah spoke of Babylon’s “doors of brass” (45:2). The Greek historian declared that one hundred gates of brass were in the wall (I.179).

There are several prophecies which indicate that God would overthrow the “golden city” by the providential use of his “shepherd,” his “anointed one,” Cyrus, king of Persia (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1), and in conjunction therewith he would “dry up” Babylon’s water (Isaiah 44:27; Jeremiah 50:38; 51:36).

What does this mean? Herodotus describes the city as straddling the Euphrates river. He records that Cyrus diverted the river, by means of a canal, into a nearby basin. Even then, says he, the Babylonians could have defended the city, except for the fact that in their confidence they “were engaged in a festival” characterized by dancing and revelry, and so were taken by surprise (i.191).

With great precision, Jeremiah prophesied this very circumstance. The inmates of the city would be feasting and drunken (51:39, 57), and thus captured unaware (50:24). It must be emphasized in this connection that Jeremiah gave these prophecies about fifty-six years before the fall of Babylon (cf. 51:59), and about 150 years before the Greek historian produced his work!

In a curious declaration, Isaiah prophetically addresses Babylon as follows: “Come now, and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon, sit on the ground” (47:1). What is the significance of the appellation “virgin”? It apparently is a reference to the fact that the mighty city had never been ravished before. Significantly, Herodotus describes the assault of Cyrus as “the first taking of Babylon” (i.191). Incredible! The “father of history” is an eloquent witness to the accuracy of Bible prophecy.

The Bible, Herodotus, and Persia

After the fall of Babylon, the Hebrews were under Persian control for two centuries. Cyrus, a benevolent Persian monarch, had issued a decree that allowed the Jews to return to their homeland to rebuild their temple. The construction project was initiated but it eventually fell into disarray. Finally, after more than fifteen years, the work was resumed. There was, however, at first, mild opposition.

Did the Jews have regal authority for the project? A search was made for Cyrus’ original decree of authorization. When the document was located, oddly, it was not found in Babylon or Susa, as might be expected, since this was where the Persian kings usually resided, but in Achmetha (Ecbatana) in the province of the Medes (Ezra 6:2).

There is a passage in Herodotus, however, which appears to indicate that, contrary to the usual custom, Cyrus held his court in Ecbatana, hence, kept his archives there (i.153). As Professor George Rawlinson of Oxford University observed, “this is one of those little points of agreement between the sacred and the profane which are important because their very minuteness is an indication that they are purely casual and unintentional” (1873, 196).

When the original document of Cyrus was located, Darius, the then-reigning monarch, issued a decree authorizing the resumption of work on the temple, even providing expense money from “tribute” collected in the provinces “beyond the [Euphrates] river” (Ezra 6:8). According to Herodotus, Darius was the first Persian king to extract such tribute money (iii.89). Moreover, the king warned that if any should alter his decree, “let a beam be pulled out from his house, and let him be lifted up and fastened thereon” (Ezra 6:11). This was no idle threat, for, as Herodotus records, at the second conquest of Babylon, Darius crucified about three thousand citizens of the city (iii.159).

In the book of Esther one learns that the maidens of the royal harem could only go unto the king when their “turn” came (Esther 1:12), and any violation of this procedure could incur the death penalty (4:11). Herodotus says: “In Persia a man’s wives sleep with him in their turns” (iii.69), and invasion of the king’s privacy was punishable by death (iii.72, 77).

Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, had foiled a plot against the life of king Ahasuerus (Esther 2:21-22), and an account of that act of patriotism had been written in “the book of records” (6:1). Herodotus records that in Persia a list of “the king’s benefactors” was maintained with a view of returning such kindnesses (viii.85).

Examples like those of the foregoing paragraphs could be multiplied many times over. Truly, Herodotus provides unwitting testimony to the accuracy of the Old Testament. The precision of the ancient Scriptures is utterly amazing. The Bible passes every test of credibility. Let us honor it as the Word of the living God.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Free, Joseph P. 1950. Archaeology and Bible History. Wheaton, IL: Van Kampen Press.
  • Price, Ira M. 1907. The Monuments and the Old Testament. Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society.
  • Rawlinson, George. 1873. Historical Illustrations of the Old Testament. Boston, MA: Henry Young & Co.
  • Wood, Leon J. 1986. A Survey of Israel’s History. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.