Thursday, January 26, 2012

Book Review – Sherwin-White. Part Seven and Final

And so we come to the final chapter in the book. The one cited by Christian apologists most often. It is broken into two (2) sections—the first on Roman Citizenship (this is the third time Sherwin-White has discussed it) and the second on what he titles, “The Historicity of the Gospels and Graeco-Roman Historiography.”

I just finished an extremely long discussion regarding this section over at Grace and Miracles blog, and am thankful for that discussion to clarify my thoughts. First what Sherwin-White states (with my notations in brackets):

Another example. The internal synoptic divergences, such as arise in the narrative of the trial of Christ, are very similar to those that Roman historians meet in the study of the tribunate of Gaius Gracchus.

The objection will be raised to this line of argument that the Roman historical writers and the Gospels belong to different kinds of literature. Whatever the defects of our sources, their authors were trying to write history, but the authors of the Gospels had a different aim. Yet however one accepts form-criticism, its principles do not inevitably contradict the notion of the basic historicity of the particular stories of which the Gospel narratives are composed, even if these were not shored up and confirmed by the external guarantee of their fabric and setting. That the degree of confirmation in Graeco-Roman terms is less for the Gospels than for Acts is due, as these lectures have tried to show, to the differences in their regional settings. As soon as Christ enters the Roman orbit at Jerusalem [i.e. the Trial], the confirmation begins. For Acts, the confirmation of historicity is over-whelming. Yet Acts is, in simple terms and judged externally, no less of a propaganda narrative than the Gospels, liable to similar distortions. But any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.
What to an ancient historian is most surprising in the basic assumption of form-criticism of the extremer sort, is the presumed tempo of the development of the didactic myths—if one may use that term to sum up the matter. We are not unacquainted with this type of writing in ancient historiography, as will shortly appear. The agnostic type of form-criticism would be much more credible if the compilation of the Gospels were much later in time, much more remote from the events themselves, than can be the case. Certainly a deal of distortion can affect a story that is given literary form a generation or two after the event, whether for national glorification or political spite, or for the didactic or symbolic exposition of ideas. But in the material of ancient history the historical content is not hopelessly lost.

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.

The impression of historical tradition is nowhere more strongly felt than in the various accounts of the trial of Christ, analysed in Roman terms in the second lecture. Consider the close interdependence of Mark and Matthew, supplementing each other even in particular phrases, yet each with his particular contribution, then Luke with his more coherent and explicit account of the charges and less clear version of the activity of the Sanhedrin, finally John, who despite many improbabilities and obscurities yet gives a convincingly contemporary vision of the political pressure on Pilate in the age of Tiberius.

Taking the synoptic writers quite generally as primitive historians, there is a remarkable parallel between their technique and that of Herodotus, the father of history, in their anecdotal conception of a narrative. [emphasis added]

As we have seen throughout this review, Sherwin-White’s method is arguing by example—he makes an argument, and then finds an example supporting this argument. Of course, the huge error in doing so is that it only takes one (1) counter-example to undermine the argument!

It was pointed out to me that Dr. Richard Carrier addresses Sherwin-White’s claims in The Empty Tomb: (again my clarifying thoughts in brackets)

To be exact, Sherwin-White never used the word ‘legend’ in the chapter [where Sherwin-White discusses historicity in documents and myth development] Craig quotes. Nor does he [Sherwin-White] discuss the empty tomb narrative, or any miracle at all—his [Sherwin-White’s] remarks are confined solely to the trial of Jesus. In this context [the chapter on general historicity and myth development timing] Sherwin-White talks mainly about ‘myth’ (pp. 189,190, 191, 193), case sometimes as ‘propaganda’ (pg. 186), ‘contradictions’ (p. 188), ‘falsification’ (p191), the ‘didactic or symbolic exposition of ideas’ (p. 189), or ‘deliberate…embroidery’ (p. 193), all of which he [Sherwin-White] admits can arise within two generations. He [Sherwin-White] generally has in mind any false story, of whatever origin, that is later believed to be true. Yet his [Sherwin-White’s] argument from Herodotus rests merely on a single case, and even that contains the full admission that a legend was widely believed true at the time. The only difference is that Herodotus challenges it as he [Herodotus] did many claims. But we have not even a single example of such a method or approach being employed by the Gospel authors; they never challenge or even question anything they report, and unlike Herodotus they never once name a single source, or consciously weigh the evidence for or against any claim.

“Thus the analogy with Herodotus fails. The Gospel writers are much more akin to the people who believed the legends, than they are to a careful crucial historian like Herodotus himself, who often doubts them. And yet even Herodotus believed without question many obvious legends (as we shall see), a point Sherwin-White curiously neglects to mention, probably because it would have undermined his argument for the historicity of Christ’s trial. Worst still, Sherwin-White’s one case study [of Herodotus] is so dissimilar to the empty tomb story that no analogy can be drawn between them, and thus it is inappropriate for Craig to employ it in such a way. [emphasis in the original]

An analogy to Sherwin-White’s method: “Cars do not rust within two years. Here is a two-year-old Ford with no rust.” This claim is proven incorrect by one (1) car less than two years old with rust. It only takes one counter-example to undermine the argument. (Why it is such a poor method to begin with.)

Conforming to his typical methodology, Sherwin-White claims “even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition” and then provides the example of Herodotus and Hipparchus.

Carrier provides numerous counter-examples. Including examples within Herodotus, examples with the contemporary writer Josephus, and examples with other historical events—Saint Genevieve and Roswell.

“Here’s a rusty one-year-old car; here’s a rusty one-year-old car; here’s a rusty one-year-old car.”

(Craig’s claim Herodotus made numerous other mythical accounts [and Sherwin-White was aware] only hurts Sherwin-White’s method; it doesn’t help it! Being aware of counter-examples is insufficient; one must address the counter-example!

“Sure Herodotus also claimed PLENTY of cars less than two-years-old had rust.”)

It gets worse. Carrier points out, even in the Herodotus example Sherwin-White utilized, there were counter-examples—legends arising surrounding the Hipparchus’ murder—and that Herodotus’ ability to maintain historicity in the face of these myths is the exception. to the legend. What about the very counter-example in the same account?

“Herodotus was able to pick out the two-year-old Ford without rust amongst all the rusty two-year-old cars.”

It gets even worse. Carrier points out the gospels correlate closer to legendary accounts than Herodotus’ historical accounts:

1) Herodotus challenges conventional legend; the gospels make no challenges.
2) Herodotus names sources; gospels do not.
3) Herodotus weighs evidence; gospels do not.
4) Event in Herodotus’ city; Gospel accounts not in author’s city.
5) Inscription regarding the actual history existed; gospels have no such inscription.
6) Herodotus consciously wrote history; Mark’s Gospel is more akin to didactic hagiography.

“The gospels are 1978 Datsuns, and Herodotus picked out a ’78 Ford amongst ’78 Toyota’s. Toyota’s are more similar to Datsuns than Fords.”*

*The late 70’s Japanese cars were notorious for rust issues.

In short, Sherwin-White (as typical) uses argument by example for this point. Carrier demonstrates how Sherwin-White fails to address counter-examples (made even worse by Craig’s emphasizing Sherwin-White knew counter-examples), fails to address the counter-example implicit in the example used, and fails to correlate the example to the documents in question to see if they parallel the example or the counter-example.

Now how Sherwin-White has been abused…

Christian Apologist authors have assumed, as style, taking quotes from perceived non-Christians to bolster their argument (presumably to claim lack of bias.) Any skeptic discussing the resurrection is certain to hear the Gerd Ludemann (a known atheist!) quote. Discuss Acts, and Sir William Ramsay will make his appearance. Crack open a creationist book; the quotes come spewing forth.

Poor Sherwin-White receives the same treatment. The rest of his book is discarded, overlooked or forgotten. (How many internet Christian apologists who cite Sherwin-White agree with his assessment on Quirinius? Or that Luke disagrees with Mark on the Sanhedrin and is probably incorrect?) But Sherwin-White is not blatantly writing a Christian apologetic book. He is a (perceived non-Christian) historian. And he writes this one itty-bitty line about timing, myth development and “hard historic core.”

Now the Christian apologist author can do what s/he always does: Take the quote from Sherwin-White, tack on some timing and…voila!—they have an “unbiased source” supporting their claim:

P1: Sherwin-White says two generations is ‘too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core.’
P2: Mark’s Gospel was written within 2 generations:
Conclusion: Jesus walked on water.


Conclusion: Jesus fed 5000.


Conclusion: Jesus’ Tomb was empty on Sunday.


Conclusion: [insert whatever one pleases]

That’s the con. The conclusion does not follow from the premises because the person is extrapolating far too much from Sherwin-White.

The question is this:

Define “hard historic core.”

Think about it; really contemplate it. It must be something that feasibly (under the Sherwin-White “formula”) will completely and utterly disappear in 3 or more generations. What could it be?

Or look at it another way. Take a myth, like Robin Hood. What is the “hard historic core” of Robin Hood? A brigand? A brigand good with a bow? A brigand, good with a bow who leads men? What requirements are there for the “hard historic core” within Robin Hood? At what point do we differentiate the Robin Hood story from other highwaymen?

Carrier raises this point admirably within the Roswell Alien story. What is the “hard historic core” in that story? Do you know? What was it causing people to believe a saucer crash landed? If there was an actual item from the sky, does that constitute a “hard historical core” not eliminated by years of alien stories?

See…this isn’t how myth-making works! Myths can take actual events and/or people and do one (or more) of three things:

1) Add;
2) Subtract: or
3) Modify.

How can we determine “hard historical core” when one can feasibly argue EVERY myth has a “hard historical core”? (Again, I would point out, under Sherwin-White, it must be something that could disappear in three or more generations, if this is a hard-and-fast formula.) Animals walk in the woods—BAM! Big Foot has a hard historical core. Pontius Pilate really governed in Judea—BAM! The Gospels have a hard historical core.

This is what I thought about Herodotus. What is the “hard historical core” in his fantastical stories? One could argue EVERY story has a historical core. There was Athens, hence the burned Olive tree has historical core. Troy fell, the Trojan horse has historical core.

Do you see what I mean? “Hard historical core” is sophistry giving no real definition and no insight.

This small sentence is “full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.” I understand the Dr. Craig’s want to utilize it. We should ignore the con and ask this one question: Define “hard historic core” with specificity so we can see how it would be utterly lost by the third generation.

It is not how myth-making works. Sherwin-White is not to blame; those trying to bolster this sentence into a formula are.

The reason for this long (and dull) review was to once again dispel the claims made by Christian apologists, once brought to full light.


  1. This is not a book I would ever read, so I appreciate the condensed version. This discussion has made me interested in more thoroughly and systematically studying myth development. Have you studied anyone in particular on this topic?

  2. Why do People believe Weird Things by Shermer and The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell. Although it has been probably 5 years since I read them.

    (P.S. Sherwin-White's book is not one I would ever recommend. You haven't missed anything.)

  3. DagoodS,
    Surprisingly, I've actually read those two books. I really like both authors. I need to read more Campbell. I just bought a book on the development of the Bible, so after I finish that and the two on hell that I've rediscovered, I'll start in on myths.

    Also thought I'd let you know that my husband and I and the two colleagues of his that ran in the Warrior Dash last summer are seriously considering the Run for Your Lives Zombie Dash that will be in St. Louis on August 18 this year. The price goes up incrementally. Today it is $57 but will go up to $67 tomorrow and will ultimately be $87 per person. We may decide by today, but if you or anyone feel like joining us that day, we'd love to see you. I do recommend the earlier wave possible so you don't die of heat exhaustion. It's too bad they don't start races at 7 am. It's almost too hot by 9 in St. Louis in the summer.

  4. I wonder whether your reviews are having an effect. I usually see an uptick around Easter in the number of bloggers citing Sherwin-White for the principle that the resurrection story couldn't have been a legend because it arose to quickly. I haven't seen any yet this year.

  5. Vinny,

    I seriously doubt my review has had any impact upon the Christian apologetic community. If so, it would be a first (and in my opinion, I have presented much better arguments on other claims.) I did see a mention of Sherwin-White a few months ago on some Christian website, and it was refreshing to have read the book, understand what Sherwin-White was saying, and see how the Christian (as typical) pulled way too much from that one tiny sentence.

    Have you been following Dr. Licona’s videos at Credo House on the “Myths of the Resurrection”? I have always admired Dr. Licona, and while I try to understand he is catering to a less scholarly crowd…boy…they are not very well argued. I am disappointed.

  6. I wouldn't have thought it likely either, but I have been googling "Sherwin-White" periodically since I wrote about him 4 1/2 years ago and this Easter is the quietest.

    I never have read anything by Licona. I have always thought of his work as little more than an attempt to polish Haberamas's "minimal facts" turd. Generally, the only videos I watch on line are from The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Is there a particular one that you think I should start with?

  7. DagoodS,
    After seeing the 3 videos by Licona, I came away amazed that people can look at the same information and interpret it so differently. To me, it's obvious that there are contradictions that aren't resolvable in the gospels but Licona doesn't think so. He says there aren't really any religious figures in the ancient world that have significant parallels to Jesus. However, I thought I'd read that both the god Horus and Mithra did have many parallels. I tire of all the contradictory information. I agree that parallels don't prove a causal link, but it opens the possibility to Christianity being influenced by other religions. I thought his analogy of the planes had no bearing on the spread of religious thought in the ancient world. When I watched the third video I though of you and Vinny with your posts and discussion of The Die for a Lie defense of the resurrection.

    The videos only take a minute each to watch. There's suppose to be 7 more I believe.

  8. Vinny,

    Here is the start. As DoOrDoNot said, they are extremely short. Be prepared to hear things you have heard before. I am framing a blog entry regarding the first one’s Titanic reference.


    I was particularly disappointed in Dr. Licona’s going from “willing to die” to “everybody dying for a known lie” to “disciples were dying for what they knew was true or false. And liars make poor martyrs. So we can know the disciples actually believe Jesus was raised from the dead and appeared to them.” Normally he carefully frames the statement, “willing to die” while acknowledging our records of their deaths are based on questionable tradition. Here he smoothly ignores that.

    While I try to understand these are extremely brief, and not in-depth scholarly videos—shouldn’t truth be precise no matter how simple and how short?

    As for the myths…we have Zeus impregnating humans to create heroes and demi-gods. Of course those are myth…but God getting Mary pregnant with a hero demi-God? Absolutely must be true. We have Persephone going to and from the Underworld, not to mention Hercules, but Jesus coming back from the Underworld? Must be true.

    We have trickster Satan, like all god-myth tricksters, we even have Hades—a Greek God!—as an actual god in Revelation. One of the four horseman.

    Of course there are not EXACT parallels—all stories morph and modify on their own. (Think how romances, science fiction and spy movies churn out year after year on the same themes, but not necessarily each one exactly parallel to the other.)

  9. DagoodS,
    Yes, I was was bothered by the truth being obscured by the overly simplistic explanations. I suppose his thought process is that what matters is belief in the resurrection, so if the facts obscure this "truth" they should be minimized. I'm assuming he doesn't see what he's doing as being deceitful, but it feels that way.

    I am going to check out the passage in Revelation about the four horsemen. Thanks for that bit.

    I was hoping you'd do a post on the series of videos. That will be interesting.

  10. My thoughts on the third video.

    Joseph Smith knew that there was a warrant for his arrest and he had already crossed the Mississippi River into Iowa and was preparing to flee westward when he received word from the Mormons in Navoo, Illinois asking him not to leave them. So he crossed back over the river and turned himself in to the sheriff in Carthage even though he knew perfectly well that the locals might try to lynch him. A few nights after his arrest a mob stormed the jail and killed Smith while the authorities looked the other way.

    If any one should have known that the Book of Mormon was a pile of crap, it was Smith. Nevertheless, we have evidence that he was willing to die for his beliefs that is vastly better than anything we have for any of the apostles. How can I credit Licona's argument without also accepting that the Angel Moroni really appeared to Joseph Smith and really gave him the Golden Plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon?