Tuesday, January 5, 2010

William Lane Craig is Still Wrong About A.N.Sherwin-White

A couple of years ago, I did a series of posts about the way that Christian apologists used a 1963 work of the late Oxford historian A.N. Sherwin-White to argue for the historicity of the gospels on the grounds that they were written too soon after the fact to be legendary.  The gist of those posts was that Sherwin-White made a few tentative, qualified remarks which apologists had greatly exaggerated at best and deliberately misconstrued at worst.  Yesterday, a commenter using the name Doubting alerted me to a podcast in which William Lane Craig answered a question about Sherwin-White so I thought I would take a look to see whether Craig had developed any intellectual integrity on the issue.

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.


  1. Vinny,
    Well, I would have settled for a reply in the comments section, but I'm glad you made a lengthy and excellent post in response to Craig's recent podcast.

    I wanted to mention a couple of hopefully relevant points brought up in Dale C. Allison in his book Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet.

    First, in terms of general reliability of sacred biographies: "Hagiographical traditions and sacred biographies written by the devotees of a founder or religious savior are notoriously unreliable. Tradents gather what they can and concoct what they cannot gather, often reaping what their founder did not sow. The result is that everywhere history coalesces with myth....Once we doubt, as all modern scholars do, that the Jesus tradition gives us invariably accurate information, unvarnished by exaggeration and legend, it is incumbent upon us to find some way of sorting through the diverse traditions to divine what really goes back to Jesus." (p.1-2)

    Second, in terms of the Alexander the Great example: "Moreover, is it not possible that, 'in abstract theory,' our earliest source could have been a tendentious production that subsequent sources improved upon?...Historians of Alexander the Great maintain that Arrian's Anabasis, written in the second century C.E., is probably more reliable than the works of Onesicritus of Astypalaea and Cleitarchus, which were written close to the lifetime of Alexander, and that, in general, Arrian's prudent evaluation of his sources enabled him often to improve upon his predecessors." (p.18)

  2. doubting,

    Since I did those posts two years ago, I rarely pass up the chance to comment on blogs where A.N.Sherwin-White is discussed. I was happy to have a reason to do another post on my own blog. Thanks for the heads up.

    Have you read a lot of Allison's stuff? I enjoyed The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus and I have been trying to decide what else to tackle.

  3. Vinny,

    I would definitely have to first recommend Allison's Resurrecting Jesus. Luckily, google books allows you to preview this. Also, Loren Rossen had a review of this awhile back. I also enjoyed Allison's Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet(for many reasons but especially his comparisons with millenarian movements). In addition, the book The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate was interesting for his back and forth with Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and Stephen Patterson. But he still gives a pretty comprehensive case for the apocalyptic Jesus in his article "The Eschatology of Jesus."

    I thought Allison was working on a forthcoming book focused more on myth and memory in the Jesus tradition (I am not sure if I just made this up, or if this is actually the case). But in brief, I would start with his book Resurrecting Jesus and his article "The Eschatology of Jesus." Hope that helps.

  4. I forgot to mention William Lane Craig's estimation of Allison's book, Resurrecting Jesus:
    "I’ve never seen a better presentation of the case for scepticism about Jesus’ resurrection than in Allison’s Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters (New York: T. & T. Clark, 2005). He’s far more persuasive than Crossan, Lüdemann, Goulder, and the rest who actually deny the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. That Allison should, despite his sceptical arguments, finally affirm the facts of Jesus’ burial, empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection and hold that the resurrection hypothesis is as viable an explanation as any other rival hypothesis, depending upon the worldview one brings to the investigation, is testimony to the strength of the case for Jesus’ historical resurrection."

    I'm not sure this will make you more or less likely to read it. I would say that, even though I don't agree with all his conclusions, Allison is heplful to read for all that precedes his conclusions.

  5. I listened to this audio too. (Thank you, doubting.) The two points I would have questioned Dr. Craig further were: 1) What “generation” are these stories? and 2) What method do we use to determine “core”?

    (A side note, as you point out, Dr. Craig said “within two generations” whereas you indicated Sherwin-White said “one or two generations.” Not that it is a big deal.)

    So what generation is Mark? According to Papias, he would already be second generation: Peter (1st) --> Mark (2nd). But if Mark was aware of Paul, this could be third: Peter (1st) --> Paul (2nd) --> Mark (3rd). Of course, if Matthew used Mark, it would make it 3rd or 4th. And if Luke used Mark and Matthew, it would make it 3rd/4th or 4th/5th! John could be 1st, or if influenced by oral sharing of Mark, 3rd!

    Simply stating, “we can still find historical core within two generations” is insufficient if we don’t know what generation these stories are!

    Secondly, how does one determine historical core? Common elements? Bit of a problem, as one example Craig uses (woman at the tomb) is not included in 1 Cor. 15. We have no appearances in Mark; the only common element in these early accounts is a death and burial. Not very helpful to bolster a claim of resurrection!

    Further, if Matthew and Luke are copying Mark, or Mark has introduced an element that orally influences John—is that a “core” historical fact, or merely repetition? Like Joseph of Arimathea.

    I appreciate these are only soundbites by Dr. Craig, but for me they only demonstrate the difficulty in determining historicity regarding Jesus.

  6. Dagoods,

    Craig's problem is that Sherwin-White was just riffing on a single example from Herodotus. Any attempt to apply the "test" is just going to make it more clear that there is no "there" there.


    Ceteris paribus, an apologist's recommendation might discourage me, but with Craig everything seems to come down to debating tactics. He may simply think it more efficient to defuse Allison's arguments by co-opting them rather than trying to refute them.

  7. Vinny,
    Well said; if only Craig was a politician, Jon Stewart would be able to skewer with juxtaposing audio/video of Craig vs. Craig.


    With regards to question #2 (how do we determine the 'historical core'?), I will quote Dale Allison again (sorry, can't help myself); this time from The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus :
    "In the closing pages of Chapter One I questioned the wisdom of drawing clear-cut distinctions between authentic and inauthentic materials, although this has been and remains the goal of so much scholarship. Isolating Jesus from his interpreters may be as impractical as separating object and perceiver in quantum mechanics. Here in this chapter I should like to argue that, even if one dismisses my doubts and still wishes to unfasten Jesus from his interpreters, the usual procedures for doing this are defective.”

    He goes on to critique the often employed ‘criteria of authenticity.’

  8. How quickly does fiction replace an historical core?

    What a very silly question.

    Just how quickly did Craig stop beating his wife?

    Just how quickly did Joseph Smith make up the story of the Angel Moroni?

    There is no historical core.

  9. A.N. Sherwin White was not an expert on myths, legends and folklore. William Lane Craig committed the fallacy of questionable authority, and thereby exibiting his sloppy scholarship, by using White as an authority. He should have used scholars who are experts in folkore/legends and he would have quickly realized the his claims about the historical core of the gospels are simply false.