Thursday, December 08, 2011

Book Review – Sherwin-White. Part One.

As I’ve discussed the Gospel accounts with Christian, I keep running into a certain book--A.N. Sherwin-White’s Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament.

Dr. William Craig refers to Sherwin-White. Norm Geisler refers to him. Dr. Gary Habermas cites Sherwin-White. Dr. Mike Licona does as well.

Vinny, over at Do You Ever Think About the Things You Do Think About? has written
a number of blog entries regarding apologists’ abuse of Sherwin-White.

Primarily, Sherwin-White is cited for two reasons:

1) To support the historicity of the New Testament documents when he says, “So it is astonishing that while Graeco-Roman historians have been growing in confidence, the twentieth-century study of the Gospels narratives, starting from no less promising material, has taken so gloomy a turn in the development of form-criticism that the more advanced exponents of it apparently maintain—as far as an amateur can understand the matter—that the historical Christ is unknowable and the history of his mission cannot be written.” Pg. 187.

2) The accounts were written too close to the events to be entirely mythical. “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.” Pg. 190.

As the book is 192 pages, and these oft-quoted sections are at the very end, I thought it would be enlightening to go through the book and report my findings. See what led Sherwin-White to this conclusion.

Unfortunately, this was not the easiest book to follow, and it became difficult for me to cohesively present what was precisely being stated, and any thoughts on the subject. Therefore, I will start somewhere in the middle and work my way around, hopefully covering most of the issues presented.

What makes this book difficult to follow?

1) Because Sherwin-White was replying to various scholars’ positions. (the book was originally published in 1962.) He would often respond to “Mommsen” (wrote in 1897-1907) or “Juster” (1914) or “Lake” (1920). It was like hearing one side of a telephone conversation. One could pick out the claims of these authors, but only by the response. Sherwin-White was not laying out his own case for a proposition—he was explaining why other’s propositions were not accurate. He was reacting.

He presumed the reader was familiar with these authors, and their positions, and therefore only provided their stance by reference.

2) He presumed the reader had ready access to other material. For example, on page 79, he states, “This is not the place for yet another discussion of the rather hackneyed theme of the relation between the Roman State and foreign cults.” With a footnote, “JTS, n.s. iii (1952), 194 ff. contains my own views, to which I have nothing to add.”

3) He presumed the reader knows Latin. One can expect to read:

“The law itself belonged to the period of the Principate of Augustus. The text runs in Ulpian: “lege Iulia de vi publica tenetur qui cum imperium potestatemve habetet civem Romanum adversus provocationem nacaverit verberaverit iusseritve quid fieri aut quid in collum iniecerit ut torqueretur.” This text is a summary of something much longer, but uses the terminology of Republican legislation. A citation from Marican adds: “lege Iulia de vi davetur ne quis reum vinciate impediatve quominus Romae intra certum tempus adsit.” The text in the Sententia Pauli substitutes the terminology of a later age in some places, but adds in somewhat convincing early phraseology: “qui…condemnaverit inve publica vincula duci iusserit” among the forbidden acts. It also adds a list of exceptions, beginning: “qui artem ludicram faciunt, iudicati etiam et confessi.” These are unlikely to belong to the original law, but the first item, the exclusion of actors should belong to early Principate.” Pg 57-58.

I’ll confess--my Latin is beyond rusty. It is non-existent, except for pro bono (free legal work.)

4. Finally, Sherwin-White was not precise in his conclusions. He left open-ended statements, and I was often scratching my head thinking, “What are you saying here? Is it correct? Not correct? More likely, less likely?” I will provide examples throughout this review.

Sherwin-White indicates his purpose in his Preface, “It may be useful if someone from the Roman side looks again at the old evidence, even where there is no new material and appraises the New Testament setting in terms of modern Romanist developments. No doubt I in turn will be quickly found to suffer from just that same lack of focus in dealing with Judaic and Christian material which is outside my sphere.

“Scholars attempting to deal with two worlds of this magnitude need two lives. We must appear as amateurs in each other’s fields. A Roman public law and administration man such as myself cannot be fully acquainted with New Testament scholarship and bibliography over so great an area I must venture to trespass on. But one may learn what are the questions requiring answers, and one may show how the various historical and legal and social problems raised by the Gospels and Acts now look to a Roman historian. That, and only that, is the intention of these lectures.” Pg. v-vi.

What surprised me after reading this book was how little he talked about generational requirements in myth development (not at all until the very end) and how qualified he made his statements regarding the historicity of the Gospels and Acts. In other words, the very things he is cited for, are not the primary focus of his book.


  1. Have you been able to find any information on the Sarum Lectures upon which the book was based? It seems to me that Sherwin-White was invited to speak about how issues of Roman law are dealt with in the New Testament and his lecture notes were turned into a book. I wonder how it compares to refereed work that he did.

  2. Vinny,

    I gave up trying to figure the underlying reason behind the book. It wasn’t his lectures verbatim—didn’t flow like a speech. It may have been from his notes, but clearly there would have been some editorializing. (Structure, footnotes, etc.)

    But, as I will show in the next few posts, some of his statements didn’t follow. Something I could see happening in a speech, but not in written form. It was…odd.

    For all the hullabaloo over this book, I expected more.

  3. When I was on law review, a professor decided to devote an issue to cases where the 7th Circuit had inserted itself into the operation of Chicago city government and she invited the lawyers who had handled several of the most important cases to write articles. The lawyer whose article I had to edit was a partner at one of the big Chicago firms and he had simply dumped the job on an associate who devoted the amount of effort one might expect on a project that couldn’t be billed. I assume that he just cut and pasted material from the various briefs that had been filed in the case because the result was a mishmash of disconnected ideas that didn’t fit together into a coherent whole.

    I have a similar impression of Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, i.e., it feels like it was thrown together as an afterthought. In my posts, I chose to focus on how apologists have misrepresented Sherwin-White's positions without offering my own of what he had to say, but like you, I was unimpressed with his reasoning at several points.

  4. "What surprised me after reading this book was how little he talked about generational requirements in myth development (not at all until the very end) and how qualified he made his statements regarding the historicity of the Gospels and Acts."

    Too bad! I wanted to know how he came to that conclusion! looking forward to more of this review!

  5. Dr. Bruce Lincoln, when asked about who is an expert in verifying the length it takes myth to develop said this: "I really have three different responses to the question you raise:

    1) No one to my knowledge has tried to establish how long it takes a myth to form. There's a general sense that myths are oft-repeated, traditional, collective narratives, and so there is some inclination to treat them as something that develops slowly and reaches far back into time, but this is by no means a hard and fast rule. Rather, it repeats the self-representation of much mythic discourse, which is often exaggerated and self-serving.

    2) To address the question seriously depends on defining one's terms and deciding how they apply to the case in point. The people with whom you have this dispute would probably be ill-disposed to calling the gospel narratives a myth, a legend, or anything of the sort. But if it's reasonable to compare the highly embroidered narratives that grew up around George Washington or Napoleon, for example, these were richly elaborated and widely diffused within a decade of their death. I'd have no difficulty calling them myths or legends, comparable to the gospel records in many ways.

    3) Really, I find this a silly dispute. Committed Christians will, of necessity, insist on a special status for the sacred truth of the gospels. To quibble about how long it takes a myth to grow is just a defensive maneuver designed to protect these narratives from being classified as myth. Were this argument shown to be clearly wrong, these people would just invent another. It's not worth debating with them or taking their objections seriously. You may quote me on that."