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.