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.