Wednesday, October 31, 2007

More About Those Pesky Thirty Years

Apologists have always argued that the canonical gospels were written soon enough after Jesus' life that they can be considered historical rather than mythological or legendary. Recently, I have been running across more bloggers asserting that it took two or more generations in the ancient world for historical facts to be replaced by legend. Moreover, they seem to believe that this principle is widely accepted among historians with one going so far as to suggest that is "unassailable." Although I know this argument has been around for awhile, I have to suspect that guys like Strobel have been hammering it in their sermons with increased vigor lately.

My initial reaction to the argument was to wonder how someone could ever come up with such a principle in the first place. I would think you would have to have some sort of model of how a legend develops. In order to build such a model, you would need some very detailed information about how specific legends had developed in the ancient world under various circumstances. I think you would also need to have a lot of information about any particular story that you wanted to test for conformity to the principle.

It did not take much googling to find that the source of this principle is a book titled Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament by an Oxford scholar named A.N. Sherwin-White. However, I did not find anything that gave me much clue to how he derived this principle. I found some references to a study of the works of Herodotus but no details of what the study involved. Most apologists simply made an argument from authority.

I was also intrigued by the fact that I did not run across any skeptics who provided much detail about Sherwin-White's work. If there was some flaw in his methodology, I would have expected to come across some atheist who took delight in slicing and dicing his conclusions. On the other hand, if his study was really persuasive, I would have expected the apologists to go into a lot more detail about his findings. I am quite perplexed.

So I guess I am going to have to read Sherwin-White's book myself. I put in a request through inter-library loan so hopefully my local library will be able to get it for me from one of the local colleges that have it in their catalog. I will try to keep my biases in check while I read it.


  1. What is interesting is a book I read in Seminary regarding UFOs as myth (I know, an odd topic to be studying in Seminary, but it is interesting to see the UFO people and the way they interpret scripture and compare it to how others interpret scripture). It was entitled UFO Crash at Roswell: The Genesis of a Modern Myth and was written by Saler Benson. The book follows the formation of the Roswell myth that many people believe in now that is similarly far fetched, like the resurrection. Reading the book one sees similarities to the formation of a myth. But there are things in the Roswell myth that don't show up in the same way in the resurrection accounts.

    The strong disagreements about Jesus' resurrection, whether it was physical or spiritual, don't show up until the later written scriptures (which spend a fair amount of time arguing against them). It is funny because in Bible College, we had one professor who would argue that some of Paul's letters couldn't be arguing against a certain heresy even though they clearly were arguing against that heresy, but if the professor accepted that they were then the professor would have to accept that these letters weren't written by Paul, but rather were written at a later date in Paul's name. Most Biblical scholars will say that the letters were written at a later date and were written in response to the heresy. I guess what I'm saying is that the other understandings of Jesus' resurrection that we currently have access to are later than the gospels.

    Now I don't think that this is "evidence" that the gospels are truth. But it is interesting. And it is interesting to compare the formation of the gospel accounts to the formation of other legends, like Roswell.

  2. William Lane Craig has an article (at least one) on his site that discusses Sherwin-White and legendary development.

  3. Pastor Gavin,

    Maybe it was not that big an issue in the first few years when people were more concerned with the imminent Second Coming. Maybe there wasn't much to fight over until Paul staked out a fixed position by insisting that physical resurrection was a necessary doctrine.


    I saw Craig's article, but it seemed merely to be reporting Sherwin-White's conclusion without saying much about his methodology.