One major topic that impacts on the reliability of the Gospels is the rate at which myth or legend can grow and overcome the recollection of historical events, whether in the oral tradition or in the subsequent written record of that oral tra dition. Some argue that the Gospels cannot be mostly legend, as many scholars propose, because that would demand a myth growth rate that is implausibly high given their relatively early composition in relation to the events they claim to recount. For example, New Testament scholar William Lane Craig writes, “One of the major problems with the legend hypothesis … is that the time gap between Jesus’s death and the writing of the gospels is just too short for this to have happened.”
I think this topic is key for many people who try to assess the historical reliability of the Gospels. It was for me. And it was for another layman: Lee Strobel, an atheist whose investigations into the New Testament led him to become a Christian, author of the runaway bestseller The Case for Christ. Strobel and I both began with the same intuitive conclusion, that the Gospels must be some kind of legendized record of Jesus. But as we each went on to look at the various factors related to Gospel reliability, we reacted differently to the myth-growth-rate argument. For me, it was the biggest challenge to my position until I looked at it more closely. For Strobel, it was the “clincher” that led him to change his position:
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 mythical Son of God…. But while I went into my investigation thinking that this legendary explanation was intuitively obvious, I emerged convinced it was totally without basis. 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. 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.
Strobel and Craig are referring here to the last lecture in a 1960-1961 lecture series by the late Adrian Nicholas Sherwin-White. In 1963, all eight lectures were published as a book titled Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. The main topic of the first seven lectures was to appraise the New Testament in light of known aspects of Roman law and social background. In the last lecture, which comprises the last seven pages of his book, Sherwin-White went on to argue that there should be a basic historicity in the Gospels based on his experience with other ancient literature that “even two generations [about seventy years total] are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historical core of the oral tradition.” Virtually all scholars agree that the Gospels were written within this “two generation” (seventy-year) time frame after Jesus’s death in the early 30s CE.
The first thing to note about Sherwin-White’s two-generation rule is that he is not talking about myth growth rates per se; he is more accurately talking about historical core decay rates– that is, how fast legend can displace and thereby erase the historical core from the oral tradition and the subsequent written record of that oral tradition. The second thing to note about Sherwin-White’s two-generation rule is his conclusion from it, also stated in his last lecture, that there should be enough historical core about Jesus in the Gospels that “the history of his mission” can be written. Sherwin-White does not specify how much history of Jesus’s mission should be able to be written, but for the sake of this article I am going to assume it is quite a bit, based on my own subjective reading of Sherwin-White’s lecture and on Sherwin-White’s 1993 obituary, which refers to his “conviction of the essential historicity of the narratives in the New Testament.”
Many have rejected Sherwin-White’s conclusion that the Gospels are essentially reliable, but few have bothered trying to identify where exactly Sherwin-White went wrong in his two-generation argument. However, one person has done this: another classical historian and colleague of Sherwin-White’s, Peter Brunt. Brunt was an expert on Alexander the Great who would later be chosen over Sherwin-White for the coveted Camden Professor of Ancient History Chair in 1970. Brunt’s initial response to Sherwin-White’s two-generation rule was made in private and is captured, along with Sherwin-White’s response to him, in a footnote at the very end of Sherwin-White’s book. Sherwin-White wrote in this footnote:
Mr. P.A. Brunt has suggested in private correspondence that a study of the Alexander [the Great] sources is less encouraging for my thesis. There was a remarkable growth of myth around his person and deeds within the lifetime of contemporaries [circa 300 BCE], and the historical embroidery was often deliberate. But the hard [historical] core [of the oral tradition] 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.
As can be seen in the footnote above, despite Brunt saying that some of the Alexander sources were less encouraging for Sherwin-White’s thesis, Sherwin-White stood his ground. His main point in reply to Brunt was that the historical core of the oral tradition still remained, and an alternative but neglected pair of sources (Ptolemy and Aristobulus) survived for Arrian to utilize when writing Alexander’s history four hundred years later.
I can think of only two ways to make sense of this response by Sherwin-White. One, he was simply disagreeing with Brunt that any of the early Alexander sources had a shortage of historical core in them. Two, Sherwin-White was saying that despite the shortage of historical core in some of the early Alexander sources, the historical core of the oral tradition was nevertheless still captured–in this case in the alternative but neglected pair of sources (Ptolemy and Aristobulus), which were also written within two generations of Alexander’s death. If this second way of understanding Sherwin-White is the correct one, it is useful simply to show at this point that even the author of the two-generation rule agrees with Brunt that some of the early Alexander sources had a shortage of historical core in them, presumably to the point that “the history of his mission” would have been less complete in some sense if historians had only those sources to work with.
Shortly after Sherwin-White’s book was published, Brunt replied to Sherwin-White’s footnote above:
Sherwin-White has done me the honour to cite a comparison I drew with our accounts of Alexander whom some of his own contemporaries treated as a god….[It is true that Alexander’s history was still able to be written,] but Alexander’s career was public in a sense which that of Jesus in Galilee was not…. If the synoptic Gospels reflect traditions that grew and were remoulded in the changing experience of the Palestinian Church, how can we objectively distinguish between what is original and what is accretion, seeing that the Gospels themselves must be almost our only evidence for that changing experience?… Sherwin-White has not provided, as he thinks, conclusive reasons to reject the view…that the history of his [Jesus’s] mission cannot
The key point in Brunt’s response above, which is where Sherwin-White went wrong in his two-generation argument, is that Alexander the Great, like almost everyone else classical historians normally investigate, was a figure of significant public interest when he was alive. Because of this, widespread knowledge of facts about him across a range of hostile, adulatory, and neutral people would have limited how much the historical core could be displaced by legend in the oral and written traditions after his death. However, in the case of Jesus, this constraint would have been much less, because Jesus was a figure of little public significance to anyone but his followers when he was alive and anyone but to his worshipers after his death.
Although a few of Jesus’s closest followers were eyewitnesses to a large part of his ministry (such as the apostles), in an enthusiastic religious movement driven by belief in Jesus’s resurrection and imminent return, these followers may by themselves have been unable to contain the growth of legend and displacement of the historical core among those in the growing church who did not know Jesus when he was alive or were not eyewitnesses to the specific events being distorted. The ability of Jesus’s closest followers to contain the growth of legend would have been further hampered if the legends were growing in several different locales, for in this case they would have had the nearly impossible task of being present everywhere, stamping out all of the unhistorical legends. Eyewitnesses of Jesus’s ministry may also have viewed the correction of legends and policing of historical accuracy for events that occurred before Jesus’s death as a relatively trivial pursuit if their focus was mainly on Jesus’s future return. In this case, their priority would have been on convincing nonbelievers and galvanizing believers of the most important thing that they knew was true–that Jesus was the Messiah, had been raised from the dead, and would be back very soon. Any restraint eyewitnesses did provide would have been further diminished as they died off and their small numbers dwindled even further in the decades after Jesus’s death.
If the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, their authors may also have been part of the messianic fervor and added embellishments at the cost of historical core. While Sherwin-White views the Gospel writers “quite generally as primitive historians,” Brunt points out that “they were not seeking to record historic incidents so much as to proclaim salvation.” It would be human nature if the better story then became the more popular one in the growing Christian community, even if it was not the most historically accurate one. Additionally, if the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s life and death were the most popular in the growing church and not many outside the church knew much about Jesus because he had never been a significant public figure, it makes sense that less-legendized and less-biased records, if they were ever even written, did not survive.
For those who think that two or more of the Gospels represent independent strands of oral tradition, which would virtually guarantee their historicity where they agree, world-renowned expert on oral transmission Jan Vansina strongly disagrees and explains why:
…We cannot assume that the testimony of two different informants from the same community or even society is really independent. This is very important. In history, proof is given only when two independent sources confirm the same event or situation, but … it is not possible to do this with oral tradition wherever a corpus exists and information flows are unstemmed (i.e., in most cases). Feedback and contamination is the norm…. No one will consider the three synoptic Gospels as independent sources, even though they have different authors…they stemmed from one single oral milieu, from one corpus in one community. Once this is realized, it is easy to see that it also applies to John, the fourth Gospel. . . .
Given all of this, it is plausible that the historical core surrounding Jesus’s life and death is both smaller–and comprises a smaller portion of the Christian-origins record–than historians are used to seeing in other ancient records. This would explain how a professional historian like Sherwin-White could mistakenly think the Gospels are essentially reliable. This would also explain the inability of many scholars to reach a consensus on a substantive history of Jesus’s mission beyond the most basic facts, such as his probable start as a follower of John the Baptist, eventually attracting his own following, and then doing something to get himself crucified by the Romans.
To summarize up to this point, the Gospels are an understandable exception to what classical historians normally deal with, because classical historians rarely if ever deal with the written records of a highly revered religious figure who had very little contemporary significance to anyone but his followers when he was alive and to his worshipers after his death and where the entire written record comes only from those who worshiped him. Because of this, using the myth growth rates observed in other ancient records as a baseline to say what should be observed in the Gospels is a mistaken approach.
In his memoir of Sherwin-White that Brunt wrote for the British Academy in 1994, he revisited Sherwin-White’s myth growth rate essay from thirty years earlier, saying bluntly: “His remarks do not convince me that he had deeply considered this whole matter…. He was himself a practising Church-man, and this may explain his unconvincing adventure into apologetics.”
There are two more points to make about Sherwin-White’s two-generation rule. First, despite Alexander’s huge public significance, there may actually be a written source about Alexander in which the historical core of the oral tradition was very significantly displaced by legend within two generations of his death. This source is known as the Alexander Romance. However, the earliest surviving copies of the Alexander Romance date from centuries after Alexander’s death; there is significant controversy about when the first version was written and what exactly was in it. This controversy will probably never be settled, but it is worth noting the opinion of Richard Stoneman, honorary fellow in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter, in a widely acclaimed and highly respected new book on Alexander the Great:
Soon after his death, Alexander’s life story was written up by an anonymous author…. This work, known as the Alexander Romance, emphasized the fabulous elements of Alexander’s story and added many new fables…. This work seems, however, not to have been known to the Romans until it was translated by Julius Valerius in the fourth century C.E.; this has led to the mistaken view, still shared by many, that the Greek original was not written until shortly before that date. Probably it arose much earlier, perhaps in the early third century B.C.E. The Alexander Romance is a fictional biography that … is of interest as indicating the way that the memory of Alexander was shaped a generation or two after his death.
If Stoneman is right, then the Alexander Romance shows that even for a hugely public figure, Sherwin-White’s two-generation rule can fail in some quarters of the oral tradition and in the associated written sources. It also drives home the point that if one wanted to try salvaging Sherwin-White’s two-generation rule, the following corollary would have to be added to it: “When in some sources the mythical tendency has prevailed over the hard historical core of the oral tradition
in the first two generations, there will always survive another less legendized source or sources to guide the later historian.”
But this just returns us to the problem of Jesus’s public insignificance. If the Gospel accounts of Jesus are similar to the Alexander Romance account of Alexander the Great, who would have written the unbiased or less legendized accounts with more of the real story? The answer is: nobody.
There is no way to know for sure, but in my opinion Sherwin-White tacitly acknowledged (in the footnote at the end of his book) that the corollary above was part of his two-generation rule. As mentioned earlier in this article, the essence of that footnote was that Brunt thought some of the Alexander sources were less encouraging for Sherwin-White’s thesis, to which Sherwin-White replied that the historical core of the oral tradition still remained and an alternative but neglected pair of sources survived for Arrian to use when writing Alexander’s history four hundred years later. I think Sherwin-White may have known that some of the Alexander sources did not have the amount of historical core that he was arguing for in the Gospels, and that is why he brought up the alternative pair of Alexander sources. In doing so, his point was that the historical core of the oral tradition was captured in the written record as a whole, even if not in every piece of the written record, and so his two-generation rule still held true. He was of course right in this case, and he had every right to say that this was encouraging for his thesis rather than the reverse, but in doing so he was tacitly admitting the need for the corollary above. But as already mentioned, even with this corollary, Sherwin-White’s argument is still stuck with a big hole in it when it comes to the Christian-origins record. If Jesus was not a figure of public significance when he was alive or to anyone but his worshipers after his death, we most likely would not have an alternative but neglected pair of sources to fill in the record for Jesus as we did for Alexander the Great.
The second and final point to make about Sherwin-White’s two-generation rule is that, as far as I can tell, it has never gathered any consensus among classical historians. If anyone were to ever try to do so, it would not surprise me if the most favorable response they could get was the same response Roman historian J. J. Nicholls gave in 1964: “the discussion, as far as it goes, is interesting, but it is too sketchy to be convincing.”
This leads us to another deceased scholar whom Lee Strobel cites in his book in support of Gospel reliability based on myth growth rates. In 1836, Julius Müller issued the following challenge, which Strobel claims has gone unanswered, to David Strauss after Strauss wrote a book, highly controversial in his time, proposing that the Gospels were mostly legend:
Professor Strauss doubtless supposes that the thirty years which might perhaps be found between the death of Christ, and the composition of the oldest of our Gospels, are sufficient for it [the growth of significant legend]. But we must regard his opinion as groundless, unless he gives proof, that within thirty years, on a clear historical scene, not strange fables,–for thirty years are not requisite for that, – but a grand series of legends, the most prominent elements of which are fictitious, have anywhere gathered round an important historical individual, and been firmly fixed in the general belief.
To answer Müller’s challenge in the simplest way, one just needs to repeat what Sherwin-White said in his footnote, quoted at the beginning of this article, about Alexander the Great: “There was a remarkable growth of myth around his person and deeds within the lifetime of contemporaries.” This statement alone meets the bulk of Müller’s challenge. These myths about Alexander the Great were also firmly enough “fixed in the general belief” (the other part of Müller’s challenge) that, as Sherwin-White also pointed out, they were still alive four hundred years later when Arrian wrote Alexander’s history in the second century.
Even if one wanted to measure Müller’s challenge of “firmly fixed in the general belief” in the short term by the initial number of believers in the legends or traditions, his challenge still falls flat. Contrary to those who think there were mass conversions or huge numbers of Christians very early on, sociologist Rodney Stark suggests the same growth rate for early Christianity as has been observed for Mormonism, 3 to 4 percent per year. Like any compound- rate growth curve, it starts off very slow and gets big much later. In order to reach the widely agreed-on figure of six million Christians by 300 CE, there need only have been 1,000 Christians in the year 40 CE, 1,400 in 50 CE, and only 7,500 in 100 CE, a full seven decades after Jesus’s death. It is not hard to imagine that as many people, or more, believed in the Alexander legends in the initial decades after Alexander’s death.
The large scale and rapid legendization of an individual is rare, but in addition to Alexander the Great, there is another person who was significantly and rapidly legendized, not only very soon after his death but also when he was alive. Gershom Scholem, president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, notes the rapid rise and widespread belief in legends even in the very first year of the seventeenth-century messianic movement that surrounded Sabbatai Sevi: “… Legend developed and spread at an amazing speed … by the autumn of 1665 … fiction far outweighed the facts … the believers moved in a dizzy whirl of legends, miracles, and revelations…. The transition from mere factual reality to the transfigured reality of the heart, that is, to legend, was rapid. Collective enthusiasm quickly surrounded events with a halo.”
The legends that emerged in the first and second year of the Sabbatai Sevi movement included a fiery cloud encompassing the prophet with the voice of an angel coming from the cloud, the claim that the prophet had discovered the ashes of the sacred red heifer that had been hidden away until the end times, drops of oil spontaneously emerging from Sabbatai’s head, Sabbatai killing a band of attacking robbers with his words, Sabbatai walking through fire unharmed, Sabbatai resurrecting some who had died years earlier, prison chains breaking and prison doors opening by themselves, lepers being healed, supernatural travel capabilities, and Sabbatai ascending into heaven when he was arrested while the Archangel Gabriel assumed his form. According to Scholem, the foremost authority on Sabbatai Sevi: “The historical truth concerning Sabbatai Sevi became obscured even in his lifetime … [and] we see Sabbatai in full-blown legendary grandeur only a few years after his death.”
It is interesting to note that the Sabbatai Sevi example concerns another Jewish messiah movement. Perhaps the legendization that surrounds Jewish messiah movements can be especially potent because the basis for the legends is already laid in messianic expectations built up over centuries. In fact, David Strauss noticed this all the way back in 1840 when he responded to Müller’s challenge:
A frequently raised objection remains … the objection, namely, that the space of about thirty years, from the death of Jesus to the destruction of Jerusalem, during which the greater part of the narratives must have been formed … is much too short to admit of the rise of so rich a collection of mythi.… [But] for the period between the formation of the first Christian community and the writing of the Gospels, there remains to be effected only the transference of Messianic legends, almost all ready formed, to Jesus
, with some alterations to adapt them to Christian opinions, and to the individual character and circumstances of Jesus: only a very small proportion of mythi having to be formed entirely new.
In summary, this article has tried to make five points:
- Legend can develop very rapidly around an individual and be believed by many people in a community, even with eyewitnesses still around (as it did for Alexander the Great and Sabbatai Sevi).
- An especially large amount of legend could have surrounded Jesus, given the centuries of built-up Jewish expectations about the messiah.
- If Jesus was not a figure of significant public interest when he was alive (in contrast to someone such as Alexander the Great), there would have been far fewer people than normal to preserve the historical core after his death, in which case legend would have had a much easier time displacing the historical core than it would have otherwise.
- If there was a lot of legend piled on top of a reduced historical core, a smaller portion of the Gospels would be historically reliable than historians are used to seeing in other ancient records (hence, Sherwin-White’s mistaken conclusion that the Gospels must be essentially reliable based on myth growth rates observed in other ancient records).
- If Jesus was a figure of little significance to anyone but his worshipers when the record about him was being written, less legendized sources may not have survived or, more likely, were never even written.
In short, the Gospels are an understandable exception to what classical historians normally deal with, because classical historians rarely if ever deal with the written records of a highly revered religious figure who had very little contemporary significance to anyone but his followers when he was alive and to his worshipers after his death and where the entire written record comes only from those who worshiped him. Because of this, using the myth growth rates observed in other ancient records as a baseline to say what should be observed in the Gospels is a mis- taken approach, which means the door is still open to a possibility that a lot of people would like to eliminate—the Gospels are the record of a legendized man.
- Brunt, P.A. 1964. “A Historian of Rome on the New Testament.” The Oxford Magazine, New Series Vol. 4 No. 13: 209-210. Also, 1995. “1994 Lectures and Memoirs.” Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. 87: 455-470.
- Craig, W. L. 2010. On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook.
- Müller, J. 1844. The Theory of Myths in Its Application to the Gospel History Examined and Confuted. London: John Chapman. (Originally published in German in 1836.)
- Nicholls, J.J. 1964. Book review in the Journal of Religious History, Vol. 3 Issue 1: 92-95.
- Scholem, G. 1973. Sabbatai Sevi, the Mystical Messiah. Princeton: Princeton University.
- Sherwin-White, A.N. 1963. Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University. Also, Obituary for Sherwin-White in The Times, November 15, 1993.
- Stark, R. 1996. The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. Princeton: Princeton University.
- Stoneman, R. 2010. The Landmark Arrian. Edited by James Romm. New York: Anchor.
- Strauss, D. 1840. The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. 4th German edition. Translated by George Eliot. London:G. Allen & Co.
- Strobel, L. 1998. The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
- Vansina, J. 1985. Oral Tradition as History. Madison: University of Wisconsin.
Kris Komarnitsky is the author of Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box? (Stone Arrow Books, 2009).