Myth Growth Rates and the Gospels:
A Close Look at A.N. Sherwin-White’s Two-Generation Rule
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.
See Also: Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box? (Stone Arrow Books; 2 edition, 2014)
By Kris Komarnitsky
One major topic that impacts on the reliability of the Gospels is the rate at which myth or legend can grow over time and displace the historically accurate accounts of events. Some argue that the Gospels cannot be mostly legend, as many scholars have proposed, because that would require 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 says, “One of the major problems with the legend hypothesis…is that the time gap between Jesus’ death and the writing of the Gospels is just too short for this to have happened.”1
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 and author of the runaway best-selling book 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 as a non-Christian…until I looked at it closer. 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.2
Strobel and Craig are referring here to the last lecture in a 1960-1961 eight-part 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 stepped out from the main topic of his lectures to “boldly state a case” in favor of the historical reliability of the Gospels.3
The focal point of Sherwin-White’s case for the historical reliability of the Gospels was a two-generation rule he derived from his extensive experience with other ancient literature: “…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.”4 Based on this, Sherwin-White argued that there should be enough history about Jesus in the Gospels that “the history of his mission” can be written.5 Sherwin-White did not specify how much history of Jesus’ 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 based on Sherwin-White’s 1993 obituary, which refers to his “conviction of the essential historicity of the narratives in the New Testament”.6
Before continuing any further, it might be helpful to stop at this point and clarify three things. First, virtually all scholars agree that the Gospels were written within two generations (seventy years) after Jesus’ death in the early 30s CE. Second, Sherwin-White’s two-generation rule above is not primarily focused on how fast myth can grow; it is primarily focused on how fast the historical core can be erased. Sherwin-White and many others acknowledge that myth can grow very fast. It is the rate at which the historical core can be reduced or lost (due to being displaced by myth) that is in dispute. Third, everything discussed in this article is based on the Gospels not being written by firsthand eyewitnesses. Nearly all scholars acknowledge this possibility. If this is true, then the rate at which the historical core can be pushed out of the oral tradition is of interest because the Gospels are a snapshot of the oral tradition in existence at the time each Gospel was written.
Many have rejected Sherwin-White’s two-generation rule and his conclusion from it that the Gospels are essentially reliable, but few have bothered trying to explain why Sherwin-White’s two-generation rule does not hold up. However, there is one person who has done this: Peter Brunt, another classical historian and colleague of Sherwin-White. 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 back 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 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.7
As can be seen in this footnote, 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 despite a remarkable growth of myth around Alexander the Great, the hard historical core of the oral tradition still remained, and an alternative but neglected pair of sources (he is referring to Ptolemy and Aristobulus) survived for Arrian to utilize when writing Alexander’s history four hundred years later in the second century CE.
There are only two ways I can 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). If this second way of understanding Sherwin-White is what he actually intended, 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. I will come back to this possibility later, but the analysis below applies no matter which way Sherwin-White intended in his response to Brunt.
Shortly after Sherwin-White’s book was published, Brunt replied to Sherwin-White’s two-generation rule again, this time responding specifically 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’] mission cannot be written.8
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, friendly, 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 very probably a figure of very little public significance except to his followers when he was alive and to his worshippers after his death.
That Sherwin-White did not fully consider the effects of public interest in a figure on the preservation of the historical core after his or her death is evident by the fact that every example he gives in his myth-growth-rate essay of people whom the historical core was preserved – Pisistratus (tyrant of Athens), Hipparchus (tyrant of Athens after Pisistratus), Gaius Gracchus (politician), Tiberius Caesar (emperor), Cleomenes (king), Themistocles (military commander), and all forty-six people in Plutarch’s Lives (every single one a statesman, general, king, emperor, lawmaker, politician, tyrant, or consul) – all are figures of significant public interest.
But what about the presence and influence of firsthand eyewitnesses on the oral tradition, someone might ask. Although a few of Jesus’ closest followers were probably eyewitnesses to a large part of his ministry (such as the Apostles), in an enthusiastic religious movement driven by belief in Jesus’ resurrection and imminent return (I think these were sincerely held beliefs that were not the result of legendary growth), 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 of the specific events being distorted. The ability of a few of Jesus’ 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’ ministry may also have viewed the correction of legends and policing of historical accuracy for events that occurred before Jesus’ death as a relatively trivial pursuit if their focus was mainly on Jesus’ future return. In this case, their priority would have been on convincing non-believers and galvanizing believers of the most important thing that they believed was true – that Jesus was the Messiah, had been raised from the dead, and would be back very soon. Any restraint a few firsthand eyewitnesses did provide would have been further diminished as they died off in the decades after Jesus’ death.
The Gospel authors may also have been part of the messianic fervor and intentionally or unintentionally added some embellishments at the cost of historical core. While Sherwin-White in his myth-growth-rate essay views the Gospel writers “quite generally as primitive historians,”9 Brunt points out that “they were not seeking to record historic incidents so much as to proclaim salvation.”10 It is human nature to embellish, and it would also be human nature if the better story 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’ life and death were the most popular in the growing Church, and not many outside the Church knew much about Jesus because he had not been a figure of significant public interest, it makes sense that less-legendized and less-biased records, if they were ever even written, would not survive.
For those who think all of this is irrelevant because 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…11
Given everything discussed above, it is plausible that the historical core surrounding Jesus’ 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 of interest. 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 who look critically at the Gospels to reach a consensus on a substantive history of Jesus’ mission beyond the most basic facts, such as his probable start as a follower of John the Baptist, eventually attracting his own following, and getting crucified by the Romans.
In conclusion, 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 worshippers after his death and where the entire written record comes only from those who worshipped 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 he wrote for the British Academy in 1994, Brunt revisited Sherwin-White’s myth-growth-rate essay from thirty years earlier with brutal honesty: “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.”12
Brunt’s frank remarks above would be a good conclusion to this article, but there are two more points to make about Sherwin-White’s attempt to apply a two-generation rule to the Gospels.
First, despite Alexander the Great’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, because 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 (The Landmark Arrian, 2010):
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.13
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’ 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 400 years later. I think Sherwin-White may have agreed with Brunt that some of the early 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, Sherwin-White’s 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 the case of Alexander the Great, 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 significant public interest when he was alive or to anyone but his worshippers after his death, we very likely might not have an alternative but neglected pair of sources to fill in the record for Jesus like 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 vast majority of them either disagreed with it or gave 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.”14 Out of the seven reviews of Sherwin-White’s book that I could find in English that specifically addressed his myth-growth-rate essay (all from the 1960s), only two were more supportive than this toward Sherwin-White’s two-generation rule.15
1 William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (Colorado Springs, Colorado: David C. Cook, 2010), 190. See too: William Craig, “The Evidence for Jesus,” n.p. [cited Sep 30, 2008]
2 Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, August 18, 1998), 357 (pg. 264 in the September 1, 1998 publishing).
3 A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford, NY: Oxford University, 1963), 186, entire discussion pg. 186-193.
4 Ibid., 190.
5 Ibid., 187.
6 Obituary, The Times (UK); 15 November 1993, pg. 17; available for a fee online at http://www.newstext.com.au/
7 Sherwin-White, Roman Society, 192.
8 Peter Brunt, “A Historian of Rome on the New Testament,” The Oxford Magazine, New Series Vol. 4 No. 13 (20 February 1964), 209-210.
9 Sherwin-White, Roman Society, 192.
10 Brunt, Historian of Rome, 210.
11 Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition as History (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 1985), 159.
12 Peter Brunt, “1994 Lectures and Memoirs,” Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. 87 (1995), 462, 467.
13 Richard Stoneman in The Landmark Arrian (ed. James Romm; New York, NY: Anchor, 2010), 388-389.
14 J.J. Nicholls, Journal of Religious History, Vol. 3, Issue 1 (June, 1964), 95.
15 Three reviews that were critical of Sherwin-White’s myth-growth-rate essay are: Peter Brunt (already cited above); Frederick Grant, The Journal of Theological Studies, New Series, Vol. 15, Part 2 (October 1964), 352-358; and Rudolph C. Gelsey, The American Journal of Legal History, Vol. 8, No. 4 (October, 1964), 348-351. Two reviews that were supportive of Sherwin-White’s myth-growth-rate essay are: Robert M. Grant, Classical Philology, Vol. 59, No. 4, (October, 1964), 304 and A.E. Raubitschek, The Classical World, Vol. 56, No. 9 (June, 1963), 294. Two reviews that were ambiguous toward Sherwin-White’s myth-growth-rate essay are: John Crook, The Classical Review, New Series, Vol. 14, No. 2 (June, 1964), 198-200 and J.J. Nicholls, Journal of Religious History, Vol. 3, Issue 1 (June, 1964), 92-95.