The format of the podcast has a moderator relaying questions that have been submitted to Craig. Unfortunately, it is not entirely clear exactly where the submitted question ends and the moderator's elaboration begins, but the general subject was the impact of the legends about Alexander the Great on A.N. Sherwin-White's theories about the rate at which legends grew in antiquity. Craig's response is pretty clear although not entirely coherent:
Let’s clarify what Sherwin-White said. What Sherwin-White said in Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament is that these mythical tendencies or the tendencies for oral tradition to corrupt cannot wipe out the hard core of historical fact within say two generations after the event; that you can still recover a historical core even within two generations despite these mythologizing tendencies. So he isn’t denying that the tendencies are there and operative, on the contrary, he says that the writings or Herodotus for example are just filled with legendary stories. They have all sorts of fabulous tales that Herodotus passes on but nevertheless he says Herodotus is still able to get at the facts about the war he narrates and is still able to get back to the historical core. And I think that the case of Alexander the Great is a wonderful illustration of this. The earliest biographies that we have of Alexander the Great come about four hundred years after the death of Alexander and yet historians still regard them as trustworthy accounts of Alexander’s life. The fabulous legends about Alexander the Great don’t begin to arise until after these two authors have written their biographies.My guess is that the question was inspired by Kris D. Komarnitsky's 2009 book Doubting Jesus' Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box? where Komarnitsky points out that Sherwin-White acknowledged that "[t]here was a remarkable growth of myth around [Alexander's] person and deeds within the lifetime of contemporaries, and the historical embroidery was often deliberate." (RSRLNT p.193) Craig's comments about Alexander are drawn verbatim from an article that he wrote over a decade ago which apparently was not very carefully fact checked at the time and not reflected upon since. The idea that the legends about Alexander the Great did not arise for four hundred years seems pretty silly on its face and is certainly not what Sherwin-White wrote.
Craig doesn't seem to notice that he is contradicting himself as well as Sherwin-White. In the same breath that he admits that the mythologizing tendencies are there in the oral tradition from the beginning, he claims that they were delayed for four hundred years with Alexander the Great. In fact, he doesn't seem to remember that all Sherwin-White said about Herotodus was that he "was naturally predisposed in favour of certain political myths." (RSRLNT p. 191) Sherwin-White said nothing about "fabulous tales" being passed on.
However, when the moderator claimed that there was "no room for mythological development" before the gospels were written, Craig did correct him:
I want to be careful about how we state this because I think it has been misunderstood. The point that Sherwin-White makes is not that there is no mythological or legendary development but that it is not to such an extent that the hard core of historical facts in obliterated. That’s why in my research or my case for the resurrection, I focus on the historical core of these narratives that a group of women for example discovered Jesus’ tomb empty on the first day of the week after his crucifixion, but the names of the women, the times of their visit, the details of the narrative are part of the secondary and circumstantial features of the narrative and I don’t claim to be able to show their historical credibility. It is the core of the narrative that I think you can show is plausibly historical and which most scholars do regard as representing a genuine historical core to the narrative.If Craig recognizes Sherwin-White as an authority on this issue and understands his position to be that there would be at least some mythological development in the oral tradition prior to the composition of the gospels, I wonder what parts of the gospels Craig would deem to be legendary. As far as I can tell, Craig defends the New Testament in all its particulars up to and including the zombie saints of Matthew 27:52-53. Isn't it intellectually dishonest for Craig to cite Sherwin-White as an authority if the only legendary embellishment he will admit is the names of the women who found the empty tomb?
While insisting that his data should not be misused, Craig offers a defense of Sherwin-White that makes it clear that he doesn't actually know what he wrote.
By the same token, do not offer facile criticisms of him as I have also seen done on the internet, where for example its pointed out the number of fanciful and legendary tales that Herotodus does pass on. And A.N.Sherwin-White appeals to Herodotus as a case study for the rapidity with which these legendary tales accumulate and he says the tests show is that even two generations is too short a time span for these mythological tendencies to wipe out the hard core of historical facts and pointing to legends and fanciful tales in Herodotus does nothing to negate the point that Sherwin-White is making. Quite the contrary, Sherwin-White is saying here is a very unreliable author who loves to narrate these mythological stories and loves to hand on these legendary tales and yet even with him, we are still able to reconstruct with confidence the historical core of what happened in the war that he relates.As noted above, Sherwin-White doesn't say anything about fanciful tales in Herodotus, but if in fact there were lots of them, why wouldn't that negate the point that Craig thinks Sherwin-White has made? After all, every time Herodotus reports a myth or a legend as a fact, there is some part of the historical core that isn't getting through. What Craig never acknowledges is that Sherwin-White is very careful never to speculate about the size of the retrievable historical core in the gospels. While he may not think that myth would obliterate all the history, Sherwin-White intentionally leaves open the possibility that myth could obliterate a very substantial portion of the history.
After interviewing Craig in The Case for Christ, Lee Strobel shamelessly described Sherwin-White's argument as a "famous study" in which he "meticulously examined the rate at which legend accrued in the ancient world." (p. 264) Sherwin-White, by contrast, described himself as an "amateur" with respect to the New Testament who was "consider[ing] the whole topic of historicity briefly and very generally." (RSRLNT p. v & p. 186) Far from doing a meticulous study, Sherwin-White offered but a single example from Herodotus in support of his thesis. (RSRLNT p. 190-91)
The example cited by Sherwin-White concerned the assassination of the Athenian tyrant Hipparchus by Harmodius and Aristogeiton in 514 B.C. A popular myth arose that this act ushered in the Athenian democracy while the fact was that the tyranny continued for another four years. Although this was the kind of political myth that Herodotus might have been expected to embrace when recording the events some half century later, "[h]e does not do so because he had a particular interest in a greater figure than Harmodius or Aristogeiton, that is, Cleisthenes, the central person in the establishment of the democracy." (RSRLNT p. 190-91) Thus, it does not seem to be that Herodotus got things right due to the inherent ability of facts to resist myth-making. Rather, he chose not to report the myth because he had another horse in the race.
Christian apologists often cite Sherwin-White as if he proposed some empirically established process whereby fact and myth fight it out in the oral tradition with myth needing several generations in which to subdue its opponent. Sherwin-White's example, however, suggests that each person in the oral tradition makes up his own mind whether he prefers the legendary version of events or the true one. If enough people are interested in the true version of events to preserve it and pass it on, it will be accessible after several generations even if the mythological version proves quite popular. That's a far cry from some inviolable principle that the true version will always survive within the oral tradition for some definable period of years.
In the case of the gospels, the questions remains (1) whether anyone was interested enough in the historical Jesus to preserve and pass on accurate information and (2) whether the evangelists were sufficiently interested in recovering that Jesus rather than reporting myths that furthered their theological agendas. It is certainly possible that the answer to both questions is yes, but Sherwin-White's musings don't support Craig's insistence that there must recoverable historical information in the gospels.
I often get into debates about whether Irenaeus actually had any basis in 180 A.D. for attributing authorship of the canonical gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Invariably, someone will argue that there must have been some factual basis for these names or someone who knew the truth would have corrected Irenaeus If such errors are so easily resolved, how come nothing has deterred Craig from repeating his misstatements for so many years? I see no reason to think that second century believers would have been any more diligent in pointing out Irenaeus' errors than today's believers are in pointing out Craig's. Nor can I see any reason to believe that Irenaeus would have been any more conscientious in his fact checking than Craig.