Friday, December 09, 2011

Book Review – Sherwin-White. Part Two

The first chapter. (They are titled “Lecture” and presumably align with the Lectures Sherwin-White gave in 1960-61) For obvious reasons, the first thing Sherwin-White presents is the Roman legal system.

He notes the Proconsul (or principal Roman authority—in the Trial of Jesus, the Prefect Pontius Pilate) had imperium--ability to wield power. Specifically capital punishment. The legal proceedings had three phases:

1) Formulation of charges and penalties.
2) Proper formal accusation by interested party.
3) Case heard by person holding imperium in tribunal, assisted by advisory committee and friends (consilium) (pr. 17)

Sherwin-White indicates, of the three legal systems listed in Wikipedia, the one he will utilize in comparing the New Testament accounts is cognitio extraordinarem. (If you are interested, you can review a rough Outline of Roman Legal Systems)

If you read the Wikipedia article, you may note the cognitio system, within the article, is dated to the late Second Century CE. Which is a problem as the events in the New Testament are in the mid-First Century CE.

Sherwin-White, however, dates the system back to the relevant time frame, by first relying upon Pliny the Younger to indicate Pliny used cognitio when interrogating Christians, and therefore—according to Sherwin-White—the system was in place as early as 111-112 CE. Ah…but this doesn’t quite move it back to mid-First Century, does it?

To do that, Sherwin –White refers to an incident with the Proconsul of Sardinia in 69CE where the proconsul appeared to use the three (3) elements of cognitio. He also uses a document that he refers to “a mixture of party journalism and historical novelette” (pg. 22) to claim there remains a historical core within that document to believe cognitio was used as early as Claudius. (41-54 CE)

However, I found inconsistency within this approach. First, how do we know what was practiced in the Second Century necessarily correlates with the First Century? We will deal more with this in the future, but to give an example, Pliny the Younger gives the accused three (3) opportunities to recant. Shewin-White notes Jesus was questioned twice in Matthew and Mark, and only once in Luke. Was there a triple attestation required, but incorrectly recorded in the Gospels? Had the triple attestation not developed yet? Although Sherwin-White refers to Pliny the Younger, and the repeated questions, he fails to address the difference between Christ’s trial and Pliny.

Or another example, when (later) discussing the Sanhedrin not having the ability to perform capital punishment, the two examples of Stephen and James the Just are excused by Sherwin-White as anomalies. Exceptions to the rule.

Notice the convenience in this method. If I want to relate something back from the Second to the First Century, I claim it was long tradition, only recorded in the Second with barest elusive references in the first. If I do NOT want to relate it back, I call the previous counter-examples as exceptions. It is a win-win; either way I can claim historicity. Why isn’t the “historical novelette” and Sardinia examples equally anomalies? Why aren’t Stephen and James’ death elusive references to the Sanhedrin’s ability to doll out capital punishment?

Notice how one can take either position. Sherwin-White wants his cake and eat it, too.

There are two (2) problems needing discussion. I will touch more on this in my next blog entry, to give some background before hitting the next chapter—Trial of Jesus.

(1) We don’t have a great deal of information about the legal proceedings within this period. We are piecing together what procedures are required from stories, accounts, some legal documents. But even this is sporadic. Worse, the events in outlying countries could vary, depending on the country, its own legal systems, its status with Rome, etc.

(2) These accounts are not trying to give us rigorous legal scenarios. They mention legal interactions only within the scope of a much larger picture. Jesus’ story is about his ministry—not “The Trial of Jesus.” Acts is about continuity between Christian generations, including Paul’s trials and tribulations. While this involves legal wrangling, the author is not attempting a full legal analysis of what happened to Paul.

Sherwin-White attempts to pull too much out of too little.


  1. It might be useful, Dagood, if you could give us the specific thesis that your analysis pertains to. Given the complexity you have alluded to earlier, you might have several theses, but I think a thesis-based approach might make your analysis of this complex material more accessible to readers.

  2. Sherwin-White does seem to bias his interpretations to his favor, doesn't he? I'm looking forward to your next post.