This does not seem like a terribly profound observation. Many New Testament scholars who are routinely vilified as liberals or skeptics, like Bart Ehrman, think that historians can make use of the New Testament in order to draw some historically reliable conclusions about things Jesus was likely to have said or done. I find myself more in sympathy with the scholars who think that the historical Jesus is unrecoverable for all practical purposes, but that is minority position even among liberal scholars. Given Sherwin-White's admission that gospels and Acts may contain "a deal of distortion," it may seem odd that he has been embraced as a champion by conservative Christian apologists like William Lane Craig and Lee Strobel, but that is indeed the case.
What so delights the likes of Craig and Strobel is some comments that Sherwin-White made about the rate at which legends accumulated in the ancient world. "Herodotus enables us to test the tempo of myth-making and the tests suggest that even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition." RLSNT p. 195. These comments have frequently been cited as proof that the Gospels should be accepted as historically accurate accounts. For Strobel, Sherwin-White was the clincher in his unbiased quest to determine whether the gospels were the product of legend.
I had wanted to believe that the deification of Jesus was the result of legendary development in which well-meaning but misguided people slowly turned a wise sage into the mythological Son of God. That seemed safe and reassuring. After all, a roving apocalyptic preacher from the first century could make no demands on me. But while I went into my investigation thinking that this legendary explanation was intuitively obvious, I emerged convinced that it was totally without basis.The Case for Christ p. 264.
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. 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,
Now consider the case of Jesus. Historically speaking, the news of his empty tomb, the eyewitness accounts of his post-Resurrection appearances and the conviction that he was indeed God's unique Son emerged virtually instantaneously.
Since Sherwin-White said only that "the falsification does not automatically and absolutely prevail (emphasis added)," it would seem that the Oxford professor believed that falsification might still be partial, considerable, pervasive, or even predominant. Nothing he wrote would seem to justify Strobel's confidence that the stories of the empty tomb and the post-resurrection appearances were part of the historic core rather than falsification.
What I consider most dubious about Strobel's reliance on Sherwin-White is his claim that "Sherwin-White meticulously examined the rate at which legend accrued in the ancient world," which I assume is what Strobel is referring to as a "famous study." In fact, Sherwin-White's meticulous examination consists of a single anecdote that doesn't seem particularly relevant to the question of whether the story of the empty tomb and the appearance accounts might be legends or myths.
Herodotus enables us to test the tempo of myth-making and the tests suggest that even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition. A revealing example is provided by the story of the murder of the Athenian tyrant Hipparchus at the hands of Harmodius and Aristogeiton who became the pattern of all tyrannicides. The true story was that they assassinated Hipparchus in 514 B.C., but the tyranny lasted another four years before the establishment of the Athenian democracy. Popular opinion created a myth to the effect that Harmodius and Aristogeiton destroyed the tyranny and freed Athens. This was current in the mid-fifth century. Yet Herodotus, writing at that time, and generally taking the popular view of the establishment of democracy, gives the true version and not the myth about the death of Hipparchus. A generation later the more critical Thucydides was able to uncover a detailed account of exactly what happened on the fatal day in 514 B.C. It would have been natural and easy for Herodotus to give the mythical version. He does not do so because he had a particular interest in a greater figure that Harmodius or Aristogeiton, that is, Cleisthenes, the central person in the establishment of the democracy.
All this suggests that, however strong the myth-forming tendency, the falsification does not automatically and absolutely prevail even with a writer like Herodotus, who was naturally predisposed in favour of certain political myths, and whose ethical and literary interests were stronger than his critical faculty. The Thucydidean version is a salutary warning that even a century after a major event it is possible in a relatively small or closed community for a determined inquirer to establish a remarkably detailed account of a major event, by inquiry within the inner circle of the descendants of those concerned with the event itself . Not that one imagines that the authors of the Gospels set to work precisely like either Herodotus or Thucydides. But it can be maintained that those who had a passionate interest in the story of Christ, even if their interest in events was parabolic and didactic rather than historical, would not be led by that very fact to pervert and utterly destroy the historical kernel of their material. It can also be suggested that it would be no harder for the disciples and their immediate successors to uncover detailed narratives of the actions and sayings of Christ with their closed community, than it was for Herodotus and Thucydides to establish the story of the great events of 520-480 B.C. For this purpose it matters little whether you accept the attribution of the Gospels to eyewitnesses or not.
RLSNT p. 195-96.
If I understand this anecdote correctly, in the mid-fifth century B.C., some Athenians gave Harmodius and Aristogeiton primary credit for the establishment of democracy because they had assassinated the tyrant Hipparchus in 514 B.C. In fact, Hipparchus was not the tyrant. His older brother Hippias was, and the tyranny continued for four more years after the death of Hipparchus until Hippias was overthrown by the Spartan king Cleomenes and the Cleisthenes of Athens. Cleisthenes was instrumental in the establishment of democracy. Herodotus and Thucydides managed to get the story right. According to Thucydides, Harmodius and Aristogiton had originally intended to kill Hippias, but changed targets because they believed he had been warned.
Interestingly, Sherwin-White doesn't say how long it took for the myth to arise, and as far as I can tell, neither Herodotus nor Thucydides specifically addresses how or when the story about Hipparchus being the last tyrant arose. Cleisthenes seems to have contributed to the legend himself by commissioning a statue honoring Harmodius and Aristogeiton as liberators. It is thought that Cleisthenes wanted the overthrow of tyranny to be seen as the work of the Athenian people rather than a product of Sparta's foreign intervention. Regardless of how the legend arose, it is hard to see how one example of an inaccurate story in ancient Athens sheds any light on whether or not the story of the empty tomb is a myth.
In my earlier posts I avoided any criticism of Sherwin-White himself, but I must confess that I am puzzled by the conclusions that he draws from that single incident. He says that "those who had a passionate interest in the story of Christ, even if their interest in events was parabolic and didactic rather than historical, would not be led by that very fact to pervert and utterly destroy the historical kernel of their material." However, in the case of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, it seems that there may have been a deliberate attempt to rewrite the facts by some individuals for propaganda purposes. The true story was available to Herodotus and Thucydides because somebody else had their own reasons for seeing Cleisthenes get the credit he deserved or for undermining the legends about Harmodius and Aristotigen. It was not that the historical core somehow resisted the mythologizing tendency as the story was passed down in the oral tradition. It was that different stories were preserved in different lines of transmission by people with differing interests.
According to Sherwin-White, "it would be no harder for the disciples and their immediate successors to uncover detailed narratives of the actions and sayings of Christ within their closed community," but that really doesn't seem to take the differences in the two situations seriously. The overthrow of tyranny and the establishment of democracy in Athens was an event which drew the attention of many groups with divergent interests. Each group would be motivated, politically or otherwise, to preserve their particular version of the events. That is why the true story was available. Who would have preserved an oral tradition about Jesus that omitted the legendary and mythological elements? There is no reason to think that anyone other than those who proclaimed him the supernatural Son of God preserved any version of Jesus' life and teachings. If the inner circle of the closed community was composed of the myth-formers, where was the determined inquirer going to go to get the true story?
In any case, regardless of what one thinks of Sherwin-White's analysis of legendary accumulation in the ancient world, I don't see anything in it that begins to justify Lee Strobel's claim that the legendary explanation for the deification of Jesus is totally without basis. Even Sherwin-White admitted that "a deal of distortion can affect a story that is given literary form a generation or two after the events." John Frazer believes that I have abused poor Lee Strobel along with William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, Josh McDowell, Norm Geisler and all the other apologists who have taken Sherwin-White out of context, but I was happy with my post when I wrote it three years ago, and I'm even happier to know that it still generates interest.