Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Apologists' Abuse of A.N. Sherwin-White

Author's Note (June 29, 2013):  This post deals with the manner in which Christian apologists have misrepresented the views of A.N. Sherwin-White.  Kris Komarnitsky has written an excellent substantive critique of the views themselves, Myth Growth Rates and the Gospels: A Close Look at A.N. Sherwin-White’s Two-Generation Rule.


I recently looked at the argument that the thirty year period between the death of Jesus and the composition of the Gospel of Mark was too short for the accounts of the resurrection and miracles to be legends. My curiosity had been piqued by some Christian bloggers who suggested that historians generally accept the principle that legends don’t grow that quickly. The argument seems to have been developed by William Lane Craig who relies on the work of an Oxford historian named A.N. Sherwin-White. Craig writes, "When Professor Sherwin-White turns to the gospels, he states that for the gospels to be legends, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be "unbelievable." More generations would be needed." The Evidence for Jesus. However, the popularity of the argument seems to stem from Lee Strobel who interviewed Craig in The Case for Christ. In an effort to understand this argument better, I obtained the Oxford Professor’s book Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford 1963) and read the passages that Craig cites.

The first thing I noticed is that the book has nothing to do with the historical reliability of the resurrection accounts or any of the miracle stories. As the book’s title suggests, Sherwin-White’s interest was Roman law and society. The book addresses the procedural and jurisdictional issues that arise in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial and the issues of Paul's Roman citizenship that arise in the book of Acts. "[O]ne may show how the various historical and social and legal problems raised by the Gospels and Acts now look to a Roman historian. That, and only that, is the intention of these lectures." (emphasis added) (RSRLNT p. iv)

Sherwin-White’s analysis did not require him to reach any conclusions about the historical reliability of the New Testament stories. He simply offered his opinion on the extent to which the accounts reflected what historians knew about the legal system of ancient Rome. Much as a doctor might comment on the extent to which an episode of E.R. reflects real medical practice or a lawyer might comment on the courtroom scenes in Law and Order, the Oxford professor offered his opinions about the events reported in the gospels and Acts in light of contemporary scholarship (as of 1963) regarding ancient Rome. This does not mean that Sherwin-White either affirmed or denied that any particular story in the New Testament was factual or fictional. For his purposes, the question was not relevant.

Nevertheless, after discussing legal issues for 185 pages, Sherwin-White took 7 pages to “consider the whole topic of historicity briefly and very generally, and boldly state a case.” (RSRLNT p. 186) He declared himself an amateur in the field of biblical criticism, but he questioned those skeptics who declare that “the historical Christ is unknowable and the history of his mission cannot be written.” (RSRLNT p. 187) He admitted that "a deal of distortion can affect a story that is given literary form a generation or two after the events," (RSRLNT p. 187) but his response was that the gospels were no more obviously distorted than many of the sources that historians of ancient Rome must deal with on a regular basis. He did not assert that the gospels were historically factual. He asserted that they could be used to do history.

Professor Sherwin-White noted that even the “most deplorable” sources can be read critically by historians to yield a “basic layer of historical truth.” While he did not claim that the Bible was a deplorable source, he repeatedly compared it to writings that are replete with problems. Consider the following statements: "material has not been transformed out of all recognition;" "the falsification does not automatically and absolutely prevail;" and "the historical content is not hopelessly lost." (RSRLNT p. 189,190,191) Sherwin-White did not “suggest the literal accuracy of ancient sources, ecclesiastical or secular;” (RSRLNT p.192-193 n.2) he merely rejected the view “that the historical Christ is unknowable.”

The part of Sherwin-White’s essay that has attracted the most attention from Christian apologists is his comments on the length of time it takes for mythology to displace historical fact. However, contrary to Craig, Strobel, Geisler and a host of others, he did not attempt to calculate a rate of legendary accumulation that is universally applicable. Nor did he lay out a rule that enables an historian to identify a point before which an oral tradition can still be considered historical. Indeed, Sherwin-White acknowledged that various types of bias can be present both in the original source of the oral tradition and in the writer who finally records it. He merely asserted that “historical content is not hopelessly lost” to the critical historian even after a period of two generations. (RSRLNT p. 191)

The apologetic abuse of the Oxford professor starts with William Lane Craig. His claim that Sherwin-White “states that for the gospels to be legends, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be ‘unbelievable’" is at least a gross distortion if not an outright falsehood. Sherwin-White never classified the gospels as either legend or fact. Nor did he ever use the word “unbelievable” despite Craig application of quotation marks. Throughout his essay, the Oxford professor acknowledged that all of his ancient sources contain both fact and fiction. What he did argue is that it would usually take more than two generations for the legendary elements to so completely displace the historical facts as to make the gospels useless to the critical historian. But he made no attempt to identify where such displacement occurred in the gospels or which parts could be considered historical.

Not surprisingly, Lee Strobel is even less circumspect in his use of Sherwin-White. In his summary in The Case for Christ, Strobel bloviates
What clinched it for me was the famous study by A. N. Sherwin-White, the great classical historian from Oxford University, which William Lane alluded to in our interview. Sherwin-White meticulously examined the rate at which legend accrued in the ancient world. His conclusion: not even two full generations was enough time for legend to develop and to wipe out a solid core of historical truth.  (The Case for Christ p. 264)
Contrary to Strobel’s imagination, the comments in Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament do not constitute a “study” and they do not reflect “meticulous” examination. No such study was required to support the rest of the book, which is why Sherwin-White described himself as considering the topic of historicity “briefly and very generally.” (RSRLNT p. 186) Most importantly, Strobel ignores the fact that it still takes critical historical methodology to identify that "solid core." Sherwin-White did not admit the possibility of accepting the gospels at face value.

Another interesting misuse of Sherwin-White comes from Gary Habermas who appears to simply alter words to meet his own purposes in Why I Believe the New Testament is Historically Reliable. According to Habermas, "The sort of thoroughgoing propaganda literature that some critics believe the Gospels to be was actually nonexistent in ancient times. Sherwin-White declares, 'We are not acquainted with this type of writing in ancient historiography.'" The only problem is that Sherwin-White did not declare that! He declared that "we are not unacquainted with this type of writing."(emphasis added)(RSRLNT p. 189) The point of Sherwin-White’s essay is that historians were familiar with this type of literature and were capable of using critical analysis to get at the historical content despite the difficulties posed by the genre.

Now to be perfectly fair to Dr. Habermas, it appears that he was working with a 1978 reprint of RLRSNT so it is possible that his version contained a typographical error. It is even possible that his edition corrected a typo in the original that I was using. I doubt it though because the alternate wording just does not make any sense. The original reads “We are not unacquainted with this type of writing in ancient historiography, as will shortly appear.” In the next paragraph, he discussed a history written by Herodotus and said “The parallel with the authors of the Gospels is by no means as far-fetched as it might seem.” (RSRLNT p. 190) Why would he claim that he was not familiar with that genre and that he was going to demonstrate that unfamiliarity, and then identify a historical work that parallels it? It looks like Habermas was engaged in some sloppy quote mining.

As Sherwin-White’s work gets taken up by the web’s amateur apologists, the distortions get more outrageous. Writing at tektonics.org, Ralph J. Asher attributes an express affirmation of the resurrection: “Prof. A.N. Sherwin-White writes in his book Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament that the appearance reports cannot be mainly legendary.” On Townhall.com, we find that “Sherwin-White, argued that the resurrection news spread too soon and too quickly for it to have been a legend.” This assertion cites an article by Craig in Jesus Under Fire, but I don’t have access to that particular book so I don’t know what Craig actually wrote there. I suspect that Townhall has exaggerated as Craig seems to be more careful than that. The references to Sherwin-White become exaggerated in the retelling just as the skeptics suspect the gospel stories did.

It is interesting the way apologists have seized upon Sherwin-White's work. The essence of his argument was not that the gospels were immune to legendary corruption. Rather, his argument was that the legendary corruption was not sufficient to render the gospels immune to critical historical analysis. It seems that he would applaud the efforts of modern scholars like Bart Ehrman, Dominic Crossan, Karen Armstrong, and John Shelby Spong who seek to identify that core of historical facts that the gospels contain.

30 comments:

  1. Thanks for posting this. I've seen Sherwin-White bandied about by apologists and had tried to find the source of the quote, but no luck. Nice to know someone got the goods on the matter.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The scholarship of A. N. Sherwin-White may well be misused by Christian apologists. However, this scholar has done important work that bears upon the historicity of the Acts of the Apostles among other early Christian documents. His study of Roman Law and the New Testament is illuminating. It indicates that the author of the Lukan corpus was exceedingly knowledgeable with reference to contemporary Roman law and governmental offices in Roman Asia. This is the work of Sherwin-White that scholars of Chistian origins consider significant. The other issues herein raised are but side shows.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for stopping by Bishop.

    I found that part of Sherwin-White's book quite interesting as well and I have encountered one or two scholars who have cited him in that context. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of Christians I have encountered citing Sherwin-White have had some distorted notion about his opinions on the growth of legends.

    ReplyDelete
  4. It would seem odd indeed that any credible scholar would want to quote A. N. Sherwin-White on the matter referenced. Sherwin-White was an administrative and legal historian of ancient Rome, its Republic and Empire. The development of legend in antiquity or its actual historicity in the alternative is a matter for cultural anthropology and literary critical methodologies. I hardly see where Sherwin-White's input on this topic could be much more than opinion. If his comments on this matter are being used by Christian apologists, it is more a matter of useful convenience than his scholarly authority.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I find this interesting because I am a member of Sherwin-White's Oxford college and was taught briefly by his wife. While it's true that Christian apologists like myself have an unfortunate tendency to quote authoritatively experts whom they've never read or studied, it remains the case that Sherwin-White was convinced of the "essential historicity of the narratives in the New Testament" (to quote his obituary in The Times); that this was a fairly unpopular and courageous opinion to hold, both in his Oxford environment and in the wider scholarly world; and that he went out of his way in his key work to stress how those convictions arose from his careful and magisterial work on Roman law and society. Christians have a right to cite him, but not to ignore what he actually wrote.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks for commenting John. It is fascinating to hear from someone who is familiar with the context in which A.N.Sherwin-White wrote. Most of my discussions are with people who don't know anything more about him than what they get from Lee Strobel or William Lane Craig.

    I am curious as to exactly the proposition for which you think Christian apologists have the right to cite Sherwin-White. I don't doubt that he believed that there was likely much historical information to be recovered from the New Testament based on the historicity he perceived in those areas where the New Testament accounts overlapped his own area of expertise. However, he is very circumspect in stating his conclusions and I cannot see any way to determine what facts he might have thought to be included in "the historical core" of the gospel accounts.

    The problem I see with citing Sherwin-White on this question is that he did not personally make an attempt to develop a portrait of the historical Jesus and we cannot know what he would have concluded if he had. For all we know, he might have decided that the problems were much greater than he had anticipated and that the radical form critics were justified in their pessimism. Perhaps (as might be my guess) he would have reached conclusions similar to those reached by mainstream liberal scholars like Bart Ehrman about the collection of facts about Jesus that can be stated with some confidence. Even if there were some reason to believe that he would have expected to reach some conclusion that apologists would find comforting, he never did so as far as I know.

    It seems to me that the main reason Christian apologists would want to cite Sherwin-White is that he is something of a "blank slate" upon which they can project the favorable conclusions that they might hope he would have reached.

    ReplyDelete
  7. "I am curious as to exactly the proposition for which you think Christian apologists have the right to cite Sherwin-White." OK: I think Sherwin-White is appropriate to cite for two reasons: first, he forthrightly combated the scepticism of the form critics who ruled the roost in his day ("It is astonishing that while Graeco-Roman historians have been growing in confidence, the 20th century study of the Gospel narratives, starting from no-less-promising material, has taken so gloomy a turn in the developments of form criticism. . . . For Acts, the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming. . . . Any attempt to reject its basic historicity must now appear absurd.” P. 189 of the 1963 edition). He certainly would not have had any sympathies whatsoever with Bart Ehrman or John Selby Spong, and ironically you're guilty yourself of "blank slate" thinking if you project those views on to him! Then, second, he made the unfashionable (but pretty undeniable) point that two generations are just not long enough for legends to distort basic fact so completely. (The same argument has been made more elaborately and more recently by Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, so I hope people will start quoting Bauckham rather than Sherwin-White... and maybe even reading him too...) Sherwin-White was a quiet, decent man of the understated Oxford type who knew a prodigious amount about his own discipline, rarely spoke up unless he had something to say, possessed an undemonstrative traditional faith in the Christian claim which he felt was supported by the historical studies he had pursued, and uncharacteristically felt provoked enough by the stupid things theologians were asserting about history to put his head bravely above the parapet in his big 1963 book. That's what noisier, less informed Christians find fascinating about him.

    ReplyDelete
  8. John,

    Why do you think that Sherwin-White would be opposed to Ehrman? It seems to me that Ehrman tries to apply the kind of historical critical methodology to the New Testament texts that Sherwin-White applied in his area of expertise. You are quite right that I am projecting, but that is the whole problem with citing Sherwin-White for issues in New Testament scholarship. It wasn't his field so we cannot have any certainty about the conclusions he might have reached.

    As far as his "two generations" comment goes, I think that it is practically worthless. It is not based on a peer reviewed study of the accumulation of legend in various areas of ancient history . Rather, he cites a single example from Herodotus. Moreover, he acknowledges that legends about Alexander arose within the lifetime of his contemporaries.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Vince,

    If Christian apologists are guilty of overstating Sherwin-White’s arguments (which I don’t believe you have successfully shown here although for some amateur apologists that might be the case), you are guilty of understating it. In fact, it was after someone brought your blog post to my attention a couple of years ago that I decided to buy Sherwin-White’s book and see for myself if Craig and these others are abusing Sherwin-White. Having read the book and done some other studies as well, I have concluded that they are not.

    In fact Sherwin-White does go into copious detail to show that the Gospels and Acts show overwhelming evidence of being authentic first-century works. This may not be significant to you as you seem to be quite an amateur in this field yourself (which makes me wonder why you’re even pronouncing on this topic at all in a public forum), but at the period that Sherwin-White was writing, most of the critical scholarly opinion favored very late dates for the Gospels and Acts, and assumed they were written in subsequent generations far removed from the eyewitnesses. The new skeptical idea seems to be that even if they were written in the lifetime of eyewitnesses that they still could have contained the amount of legendary embellishment that is often found in other ancient works which are much further removed in time from the sources. I have never seen any credible support for this idea, but it’s certainly not where Sherwin-White was coming from.

    Thus the copious amount of detail which Sherwin-White goes into in showing how the Gospels and particularly Acts demonstrate first-hand knowledge of legal and social norms from the first century is extremely relevant and important. And given that Sherwin-White was a noted expert in this field, his opinion is also important. But he is far from the only one to have seen this. Before him William Ramsay made similar discoveries from his own archaeological explorations, and many scholars have followed the same path. To a man they report that historians views the Gospels and Acts much more favorably than critical theologians who lack the background and expertise to make these kinds of historical judgements.

    By the way, I found this one comment of yours particularly galling: “Contrary to Strobel’s imagination, the comments in Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament do not constitute a “study” and they do not reflect “meticulous” examination.” How in the world do you make that assessment? The eight chapters of this book includes very meticulous detail regarding the legal practices and customs of ancient Rome, and how those are accurately reflected in the Gospels and Acts. If this isn’t a meticulous examination (and how on earth is it not a “study”?), then I’d like to know what is! It makes me wonder if you actually read the whole book, or if you simply looked up a few quotes that you had seen Christian apologists use!

    In sum, the concerns you bring up here are nitpicky on the part of what apologists have said, whereas the overall thrust of their arguments and how they use Sherwin-White is in fact accurate. Sherwin-White demonstrates quite convincingly that the Gospels and Acts cannot be dated as late as the skeptics want them to be, and cannot be dismissed as historical evidence. This is exactly how Christian apologist that I have seen have used him, and they should continue to do so as I will also.

    It’s also a bit of a curiosity to me how many skeptics I’ve seen simply cite this blog entry as if you’ve made some kind of a great argument against Sherwin-White or against Christian apologists’ use of him when in fact I don’t see much in terms of relevant credentials on your part. This appears to be something of a popular internet-hack tactic, but I don’t see that it has any real credibility. Do you know of any actual scholars who object to how Christian apologists cite Sherwin-White?

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks for stopping by John. It is gratifying to know that this post still generates interest.

    Your misrepresentation of what I wrote shows that you have the makings of a fine apologist, but you have overlooked one of the tricks of the trade. Craig, Habermas, and Strobel can get away with distorting Sherwin-White because they are writing for an audience that is unlikely to have ever read Roman Law and Society in the New Testament. You, on the other hand, cannot get away with misrepresenting what I wrote when you comment on my blog because I have in fact read what I wrote.

    I never suggested that Sherwin-White’s examination of the legal practices and customs of ancient Rome was anything other than meticulous. I was addressing Strobel’s claim that “Sherwin-White meticulously examined the rate at which legend accrued in the ancient world,” which is pure apologetic claptrap. What Strobel characterizes as a “study” consists of a single anecdote from Herodotus concerning Alexander the Great. (Moreover, as Sherwin-White admits in a footnote, “There was a remarkable growth of myth around his person and deeds with the lifetime of contemporaries, and the historical embroidery was often deliberate.”) My post clearly distinguishes between the seven pages in which Sherwin-White’s briefly muses on the rate at which legends accumulated in the ancient world—which is what Christian apologists cite him for—and the 185 pages in which he examines the legal practices of ancient Rome. It might be possible to use Sherwin-White’s discussion of Roman law to support an argument about the dating of the gospels and Acts, but that has nothing to do with my criticism of Christian apologists who misquote him as support for a completely different proposition.

    I would hope that no legitimate scholar would defend Craig putting quotation marks around a word that Sherwin-White didn’t use. I also hope that legitimate scholars would disapprove of Habermas reversing the meaning of one of Sherwin-White’s sentences by changing the word “unacquainted” to “acquainted.” When it comes to pointing out such blatant misrepresentations, I think the only relevant credential is the ability to read.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Vince,

    You said, “I never suggested that Sherwin-White’s examination of the legal practices and customs of ancient Rome was anything other than meticulous. I was addressing Strobel’s claim that “Sherwin-White meticulously examined the rate at which legend accrued in the ancient world,” which is pure apologetic claptrap.”

    I’m afraid you’ve made a bit of a botch of things here, Vince. Let me show you. Your quote from Strobel was “what clinched it for me was the famous study by A.N. Sherwin-White, the great classical historian from Oxford University, which William Lane Craig alluded to in our interview.” Before we move on, what is Strobel referring to as a “study”? Is it just the part about the rate of accumulation of myth? I don’t think so – it looks like he’s referring to the whole book. I’m not sure how you could interpret it otherwise.

    Now move on to the next part: “Sherwin-White meticulously examined the rate at which legend accrued in the ancient world.” So your complaint is that the section in question is not meticulous (as opposed to the whole book). Okay, fair enough. I misunderstood that, but I think that’s because I assumed you were referring to the same thing Strobel was with “study,” and that appears to be the whole book.

    However, even if I take your complaint to be that the section on the accumulation of myth was not meticulous, I still see no basis for it. Sherwin-White goes into some detail about the story of the murder of Hipparchus as addressed by both Herodotus and Thucydides and how it illustrates the tempo of myth-making even with a writer like Herodotus who, as Sherwin-White puts it, “was naturally predisposed in favour of certain political myths, and whose ethical and literary interests were stronger than his critical faculty.”

    To complain that this section isn’t “meticulous” is a rather weak complaint. What’s your definition of meticulous? In any case, Strobel’s final sentence, “His conclusion: not even two full generations was enough time for legend to develop and to wipe out a solid core of historical truth” is almost word-for-word what Sherwin-White says. It’s a completely accurate paraphrase. So there is no misuse or abuse of Sherwin-White here at all. If your complaint is that Sherwin-White was wrong, you certainly haven’t demonstrated that!

    But in any case, you haven’t addressed my main point, which is that the apologists use of Sherwin-White is accurate, as another commenter on here has also noted. Sherwin-White defends the historicity of the Gospels and Acts against skeptical form criticism, which is how apologists also use him.

    You said, “What Strobel characterizes as a “study” consists of a single anecdote from Herodotus concerning Alexander the Great. (Moreover, as Sherwin-White admits in a footnote, “There was a remarkable growth of myth around his person and deeds with the lifetime of contemporaries, and the historical embroidery was often deliberate.”)”

    Could you tell me what page the footnote is on? I can’t seem to track it down.


    You said, “It might be possible to use Sherwin-White’s discussion of Roman law to support an argument about the dating of the gospels and Acts, but that has nothing to do with my criticism of Christian apologists who misquote him as support for a completely different proposition.”

    You actually haven’t shown anything to suggest that they are, in fact, misusing him. In fact Sherwin-White does say that even two generations is not long enough “to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition.” However, with the Gospels and Acts you don’t even have that long of a time. So where is the misuse? I gather that you aren’t really familiar with this area of scholarship and so you don’t know what it is that Sherwin-White is even addressing.

    ReplyDelete
  12. You said, “I would hope that no legitimate scholar would defend Craig putting quotation marks around a word that Sherwin-White didn’t use. I also hope that legitimate scholars would disapprove of Habermas reversing the meaning of one of Sherwin-White’s sentences by changing the word “unacquainted” to “acquainted.” When it comes to pointing out such blatant misrepresentations, I think the only relevant credential is the ability to read.

    I can’t really comment on the Habermas quote, as I would have to see the full context to really know what’s going on with that. Frankly, you’ve shown such a tendency towards finding fault for extremely nitpicky details while missing the fact that these apologists use Sherwin-White accurately as far as the gist of what he’s saying goes is of concern to me. I think you’ve clearly misrepresented Strobel’s words here, and appear to be more interested in simply slinging mud at apologists than actually getting to the bottom of the issues. I think that’s a bit unfortunate, and as I think one of the other commenters pointed out you clearly are approaching this from a biased position.

    ReplyDelete
  13. If by “making a botch” you meant “failed to anticipate the creative manner in which a Christian apologist might redefine words to suit his own purposes,” I suppose that I did. Otherwise, not so much. A “study” is not the same thing as a “book.” A “study” can be found in a “book,” but it can also be found in a journal. A “book” might be composed of a single “study,” but it might also be composed of two or more studies. There is not the slightest reason to assume that someone who refers to a “study” of a particular topic is in fact referencing an entire book which contains discussions of other topics as well.

    I do object to Strobel’s use of the term “meticulously,” but not because I have a different evaluation of Sherwin-White’s work. My objection stems from the fact that Sherwin-White himself describes his consideration of the historicity of the Gospels and Acts with the terms “briefly and very generally.” Unless we wish to label him a liar, simple respect for an eminent scholar demands that we place no more weight on his work than he deems warranted.

    BTW, the footnote can be found on pages 192-193 of Roman Law and Society in the New Testament.

    The link to Habermas' Why I Believe the New Testament is Historically Reliable no longer works. The essay with the error can be found in Why I Am a Christian (2001) edited by Geisler and Hoffman. There appear to be other versions of the essay on line, but I have not looked at all of them.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Vince,

    Previously you said, “What Strobel characterizes as a “study” consists of a single anecdote from Herodotus concerning Alexander the Great. (Moreover, as Sherwin-White admits in a footnote, “There was a remarkable growth of myth around his person and deeds with the lifetime of contemporaries, and the historical embroidery was often deliberate.”)”

    You’ve made one flat-out error here and another misrepresentation. First, Sherwin-White’s comments on the rate of growth of myth was illustrated by the case of the murder of Hipparchus – he did not refer to anything Herodotus said about Alexander. Secondly, in the footnote in question, the comment from Sherwin-White is a summary of a suggestion from someone else! The full context of the footnote will make this clear:

    “Mr. P. A. Brunt has suggested in private correspondence that a study of the Alexander sources is less encouraging for my thesis. There was a remarkable growth of myth around his person and deeds within the lifetime of contemporaries, and the historical embroidery was often deliberate.”

    You omitted the first sentence, pulling the second sentence out of context. Furthermore, you neglected the statement from Sherwin-White immediately afterwards:

    “But the hard core still remains, and an alternative but neglected source – or pair of sources – survived for the serious inquirer Arrian to utilize in the second century A.D. This seems to me encouraging rather than the reverse.”

    Far from conceding anything, Sherwin-White receives the objection and rebuts it. At best you’ve been very sloppy yourself in mining this quote – at worst you’ve been deliberately deceptive. You cherry-picked a single sentence which is actually the summary of a comment by someone else, and which Sherwin-White himself rebuts immediately afterwards.

    You said, “A “study” is not the same thing as a “book.””

    Thanks, Vince. But I never said it was. I said that when Strobel used the word “study” he appeared to be referring to the whole book, not just the section in question. Certainly a study can be published in a book, and I see no reason why Sherwin-White’s book could not be referred to as a study. It’s a silly objection on your part, and utterly lacks substance.

    You said, “My objection stems from the fact that Sherwin-White himself describes his consideration of the historicity of the Gospels and Acts with the terms “briefly and very generally.””

    So your objection to Strobel amounts to a complaint that Sherwin-White made a statement at the beginning of the chapter about making comments on historicity “briefly and very generally” and Strobel referred to one section of the chapter as “meticulous.” One reason this is such a weak complaint is that Sherwin-White was known as a very meticulous scholar, so Sherwin-White’s “briefly and very generally” might well be meticulous for someone else. You’re making a very subjective and insubstantial charge here while apparently not even interested in the question of whether or not he was right!

    Sorry, Vince, but your charges here appear to be nothing more than some very insubstantial mud-slinging at Christian apologists, worth little more than any other random blog on the internet. You might be able to fool people who haven’t read Sherwin-White’s book for themselves, but as I said it was actually your blog that made me buy the book to see for myself.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Vince,

    Incidentally, you might want to take note of the fact that Herodotus lived a century before Alexander the Great was born. It would have been quite difficult for him to have said anything about Alexander! And that's another reason why guys with degrees in finance and law with history as a hobby probably shouldn't be publishing commentary on professional scholars.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Since you believe that my charges “appear to be nothing more than some very insubstantial mud-slinging,” I can only assume that you are perfectly comfortable with Craig’s creative us of quotation marks and Habermas changing words to reverse the meaning of Sherwin-White’s sentences.

    The question isn’t whether there is any reason that someone couldn’t refer to Sherwin-White’s entire book as a study, the question is whether there is any reason other than wishful thinking to believe that Strobel was doing so. There isn’t.

    “There was a remarkable growth of myth around his person and deeds within the lifetime of contemporaries, and the historical embroidery was often deliberate” is a statement of fact. Whether it is Sherwin-White’s own summary of the Alexandrian sources or his summary of Brunt’s comments about those sources is irrelevant. In either case, Sherwin-White concedes the point and explains why it does not undermine his overall thesis. He does not rebut it.

    Like the blind squirrel who occasionally finds a nut, you are correct on one point. The Herodotus anecdote did not concern Alexander the Great. It is three years since I wrote this post and I responded to your comment without going back and rereading Sherwin-White's book. Happily, that error does not effect the substance of any of my arguments. It is still only a single incident from Herodotus that Sherwin-White discusses.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Vince,

    You said, “Whether it is Sherwin-White’s own summary of the Alexandrian sources or his summary of Brunt’s comments about those sources is irrelevant.”

    You presented the statement as if it was simply an observation Sherwin-White made that weakened his own thesis. In fact that’s false.

    You said, “In either case, Sherwin-White concedes the point and explains why it does not undermine his overall thesis. He does not rebut it.”

    You’re starting to look a bit desperate, Vince. What does it mean to “rebut” something if not to explain why the point doesn’t undermine your argument? In fact, he goes beyond that and shows that Brunt’s observation actually supports his point in that even four centuries later Arrian was able to compose a biography of Alexander (one which is still considered one of the best sources for Alexander’s campaigns). How is that not a rebuttal?

    You said, “Like the blind squirrel who occasionally finds a nut, you are correct on one point. The Herodotus anecdote did not concern Alexander the Great.”

    That’s not the only point I’m correct on, Vince. It’s also the case that Herodotus lived before Alexander and so couldn’t possibly have written about him – something that anyone with a background in Roman history would know. The problem isn’t just that you got confused and thought that Sherwin-White was talking about Alexander instead of Hipparchus, it’s that you don’t have the background to be talking about this at all! The one point you’ve tried to make which gave the appearance that Sherwin-White distanced himself from the thesis which these other apologists have used was in fact a distortion – Sherwin-White himself refuted the objection! Again, if you want to argue that Sherwin-White was wrong about the development of myth you haven’t demonstrated that. And your complaints about Christian apologists amount to Craig using one set of quotes when he shouldn’t have, a complaint that Strobel said “meticulous” when you think it was inappropriate, and a misquote by Habermas which I have no confidence in your ability to assess.

    You said, “Happily, that error does not effect the substance of any of my arguments. It is still only a single incident from Herodotus that Sherwin-White discusses.”

    There ISN’T any substance to any of your arguments, Vince! Your complaints are all superficial. If your argument is actually that Sherwin-White was wrong about the rate of mythmaking in ancient literature, where is your argument to that effect? It can’t be your single cherry-picked quote from one footnote – I’ve already demonstrated that that was a distortion on your part, and in my opinion a far more egregious one than anything you’ve tried to pin on Christian apologists. The quote which you tried to use to make it look like Sherwin-White acknowledged a weakness in his thesis in fact turns out to be the opposite – he says himself that “this seems to me encouraging rather than the reverse.” You presented the quote to make the exact opposite point that Sherwin-White himself made with it! Again, you might fool people who don’t have the book themselves, but not someone who has a copy.

    You've completely blown it in trying to show that Sherwin-White didn't think what the apologists say he did - that IS what Sherwin-White thought, although he may have presented it somewhat more modestly. If you want to prove him wrong, go ahead. But for a guy who thought Herodotus wrote about Alexander, refuting a noted Roman historian might be a bit of a tall order!

    ReplyDelete
  18. Vince,

    I’m making a separate comment here with regard to your complaint about Habermas.

    You wrote, “According to Habermas, "The sort of thoroughgoing propaganda literature that some critics believe the Gospels to be was actually nonexistent in ancient times. Sherwin-White declares, 'We are not acquainted with this type of writing in ancient historiography.'" The only problem is that Sherwin-White did not declare that! He declared that "we are not unacquainted with this type of writing."(emphasis added)(RSRLNT p. 189) The point of Sherwin-White’s essay is that historians were familiar with this type of literature and were capable of using critical analysis to get at the historical content despite the difficulties posed by the genre.”

    On p. 189, Sherwin-White begins the paragraph with this comment: “What to an ancient historian is most surprising in the basic assumptions of form-criticism of the extremer sort, is the presumed tempo of the development of the didactic myths – if one may use that term to sum up the matter. We are not unacquainted with this type of writing in ancient historiography, as will shortly appear. The agnostic type of form-criticism would be much more credible if the compilation of the Gospels were much later in time, much more remote from the events themselves, than can be the case.”

    With your obvious lack of background in this field, you probably don’t have a clue what Sherwin-White is saying. What he’s saying is that the skeptical theories CAN’T POSSIBLY BE RIGHT. He goes on to discuss the issue of Herodotus that we’ve already covered above, and that you screwed up royally on. He’s not saying that “yes, there are other examples where myth has very quickly wiped out historical fact.” The misquote by Habermas is an error, but it’s a superficial one. It doesn’t contradict Sherwin-White’s basic point – that in ancient literature the tempo of mythmaking doesn’t allow for the loss of the underlying historical facts in such a short time. But in all of the skeptical theories, this is what they propose happened with the Gospels. Sherwin-White says that’s not possible, and this is after he’s spent several chapters exploring in detail why these books bear all the historical marks of authenticity.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Glad to know that you are OK with Habermas and Craig’s abominable misquotations of Sherwin-White. Your inability to acknowledge obvious breaches of academic ethics demonstrates your unwillingness to engage in an honest discussion of the issues.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Vince,

    You said, "Glad to know that you are OK with Habermas and Craig’s abominable misquotations of Sherwin-White. Your inability to acknowledge obvious breaches of academic ethics demonstrates your unwillingness to engage in an honest discussion of the issues."

    Great rebuttal! You completely ignore all of my points and simply reiterate the superficial criticisms of your original complaint! Sure, I can say that Craig shouldn't have used quotation marks for that one word, but his point is still correct - Sherwin-White does say that myth doesn't accumulate that quickly. I answered the charge against Habermas, but again you're ignoring the context to see that in fact Habermas is making the same point as Sherwin-White. Your complaint against Strobel was just silly, which I presume is why you've dropped that one now that it's been shown to be ridiculous.

    But ironically you still haven't answered for your own abominable misquotation - lifting a quote from a footnote to try to make it appear that Sherwin-White was saying the exact opposite of what he said! Wave your hand all you, Vince, but I'm afraid the facts are not on your side.

    I suppose anyone other than a lawyer would see that the important question is whether the arguments are right, not whether they dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's. No wonder the legal profession is so universally held in low esteem.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Except regarding the specific point upon which I have acknowledged my error, I stand by everything I have written. If you wish to have an honest and civil discussion, I am happy to do so. Otherwise, I will no longer respond to your comments.

    ReplyDelete
  22. John Fraser,

    What do you think Sherwin-White is saying is the “hard historical core of the oral tradition” still found in the Gospels and Acts?

    ReplyDelete
  23. Interesting exchange between Vinny and John. I think John better represents the position taken by Sherwin-White. The critical New Testament scholars named in the dialoague are PRECISELY the type of theologians Sherwin-White was correcting with a heavy dose of historical analysis. His study is a fresh breeze on a stale intellectual landscape. The theologians have played their game long enough, toying with the texts of the Gospels to project pseudo-histories of "alternative Christianities."

    ReplyDelete
  24. Bobby,

    It would be interesting to know which scholars were the intended target of Sherwin-White's remarks. Absent that, I have to go with the position that he said he was addressing. Since most of the scholars mentioned in these comments think that the historical Christ is knowable and that the history of his mission can be written, I have to conclude that Sherwin-White's remarks do not apply to them.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Hi,

    Vinny and John, I want to thank you this thread.

    For the last couple of years, I have known about the analysis of William Mitchell Ramsay, especially going through each verse in Acts, and have considered it of primary importance in any New Testament historicity discussion. Plus, I have noticed how skeptics and mythicists on the forum pull out every diversion technique in their skeptics apologetics book when any sincere attempt at discussion is requested.

    Now, I will add Adrian Nicholas Sherwin-White to my study and writing list.

    "lifting a quote from a footnote to try to make it appear that Sherwin-White was saying the exact opposite of what he said!"

    Vinny, nice try, but John was 100% right about that, I was learning while reading the thread, and was rather shocked about what you had done, which was far more a misrepresentation than anything that you had complained about.

    Oh, btw, most of this is largely academic, about the two generation stuff, since Luke wrote to the high priest Theophilus. The Gospel around 41 AD and Acts a bit after 60 AD. However, even the Richard Bauckham types are still stuck straddling the non-functional late dating paradigms. Which really never fit the New Testament consistency quotient. (At least he should have accepted much of the basic schema of John Arthur Thomas Robinsons's Redating the New Testament).

    Vinny, I do want to sincerely thank you for hosting this conversation. I feel like I received a good part of a seminars eduction in a short read. You were a good host, even if toward the end you were a smidgen testy about a poster's direct confrontation. At least you followed through the dialog and left the thread and comments up, apparently without any editing. Thanks.

    Yours in Jesus,
    Steven Avery
    Bayside, NY

    ReplyDelete
  26. Vinny - Thanks for the insight. I think the rather protracted banter with John was somewhat off point. I believe the gist of your original statement is that Sherwin-White is often misquoted in his assessment of the Bible and that the Apologists deviate slightly to support their particular platform. Thank you and I found this informative.

    ReplyDelete
  27. This string has been very helpful to me and I will reread it again in my studies. Thanks. It seems to me the logic of Professor White generally supports the ideas that the Gospel and Acts accounts of the New Testament can be very supported by the idea that they were written so soon after they happened that if incorrect they could have been refuted by those who were alive at the time and saw them differently.

    Are there "refuting" stories that are accurately dated I the same period?

    Elvin Hollon
    Liberty
    Missouri

    ReplyDelete
  28. Why would you think that provides any support for the accounts in the gospels and Acts? In the mid-1800's, there was no shortage of people who saw Joseph Smith and his Mormon followers very differently than they saw themselves and there were many who tried to refute the stories they told. Nevertheless, there are approximately fourteen million Mormons in the world today because the followers of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young ignored the the truth. I can't see any reasons to think that first century Christians would have been any more inclined to listen to outsiders who might have challenged their beliefs.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Well you have to remember that there were many eyewitnesses of Jesus' ministry during the first century, and any myth could be put down (for which much of Paul's letters contend with) by such. Christians claims are of events, whereas Joseph Smith/Brigham Young claims are of discoveries. Afterall... "not even two full generations was enough time for legend to develop and to wipe out a solid core of historical truth"

    ReplyDelete
  30. @Everyone

    A.N. Sherwin - White was NOT an expert on foklore, legends, fairytales ect. He was a historian giving his layman's opinion on a subject he knew little about (legends) and who William Lane Craig, demonstrating poor scholarship, used as an authoritive source. Jan Harold Brundvan IS an expert in foklre and urban legends and one only need to study his works, or any other experts on legends, to know that legends could and do grow and spread not only within one generation but sometimes within months. WLC's claim about legends is simply false.
    Mr right



    ReplyDelete