Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book Review – Sherwin-White. Part Four

Before I continue on with Paul’s interaction in Acts of the Apostles—a brief interlude to remind us of two obvious concepts. In fact, so obvious, you will immediately read it, and only one word will come to mind. “Obvious.” Yet for some reason we enter biblical studies and become muddled, foggy and eventually ignored.

1) Just because it is historically accurate, does not make it historical. Just because an event is historical, does not mean we have a historically accurate account.

I enjoy reading the background on movies at Internet Movie Database. All sorts of information—actors, budget, gross revenues, quotes, trivia—including a section on “goofs.” One goof often listed is anachronisms—items, quotes or events in movies out of place.

For example, the action/adventure Where Eagles Dare is a World War II drama. Yet imdb notes, “If you look really carefully you can make out that the timer used on the bombs (in particular the one on the cable car) is a Heuer Sebring, a model that wasn't made until around 1958.”

Obviously they were not using 1958 timers in 1944. It is a mistake. Now, the movie has 1000’s of details correct—uniforms, salutes, trucks, cars, motorcycles, parachutes, radio rooms, etc.—yet all those correct details do not make the story factual. It does not become historical if the movie maker used correctly dated times.

We understand it is these anachronisms cluing us in as to errors in the story.

Secondly, even though we know something happened, we may not have historically accurate information. We have differing copies of the Gettysburg Address, and are not certain what Lincoln’s precise words were. Does that mean he did not give the Gettysburg Address? Of course not. And we can be reasonably certain of being extremely close to what he said. Just not 100% accurate.

Because a story has correct details does not make it history. Because a story has incorrect details does not make it completely fiction.

I point this out, because at times it seems we battle two extremes within biblical studies. On the one hand, there are those who insist every detail MUST be true, or the whole thing should be thrown out as a shame. “Jesus couldn’t be born when King Herod the Great was alive and Quirinius was governor, therefore Jesus was never born.” On the other, there are those who claim some details are accurate, so the whole thing must be true. “Since there really was Pontius Pilate, heaven has golden streets.”

This “all-or-nothing” would seem to be part of what Sherwin-White is battling. Scholars who indicate not knowing what Paul was precisely charged with on certain occasions so it never happened. However, Sherwin-White then pendulums too far (in my opinion) to excusing anachronisms calling into question the account’s historicity.

It seems to me we approach these stories just like any other historical account. Provisionally, understanding errors do not eliminate the necessity of it being historical, but give us pause as to why the errors occurred.

Christians would be far better served if they avoided Herculean twists to align Jesus’ birthdate, accept Luke modified the date to conform to Luke’s intended point, and move on. Jesus could still exist. Jesus could still be the Son of God. Jesus could still have been crucified, buried and rose again. Just Luke got it wrong when it came to Jesus’ birth. (Coincidentally, this is exactly what evangelical Christians do with the Second Century gospels on Jesus. Still claim he was a child at one point, and could do extraordinary things, and was the son of God, etc. Just that the author of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas was wrong. Alas, they avoid making the same claim about Luke, because it is within the covers of their leather-bound, family heirloom.)

2) Is it remarkable Luke got details correct?

Imagine I told you to write a Batman comic including a storyline about Bruce Wayne being on trial. I suspect you would include things like a prosecutor, attorneys, a judge, possibly a jury. It would be in a courtroom, there would be counsel tables, perhaps a court reporter and bailiff. You would include words like “Objection!” and “Sustained!” Phrases like “Call your next witness” and “Please be seated.”

Thanks to books, television, plays and movies, most people have general knowledge how a trial runs. 2000 years from now, I would review it and could point out dozens, if not 100’s of details you got precisely correct. The correct general charge, the correct order, the correct language, the correct players, the correct system.

Yet we know it is a story about Batman—a completely fictional account.

The question I have is this—given a person who could read/write Greek, was generally knowledgeable regarding governorships, travel, and geography of the First Century Mediterranean, would we equally expect such a person to have general knowledge regarding legal actions sufficient to provide the broad details we have?

Simply put, could Luke have the knowledge to completely make-up the legal inter-workings with Paul, the same as you could make up a trial about Batman? If so, how remarkable is it he gets these broad concepts correct?

Keeping this in mind, the next two (2) lectures Sherwin-White deals with Paul’s trial before Felix and Festus in Judea.

Sherwin-White addresses “moderns” (pg. 49) regarding question as to what the specific charges would be. “In the scene before the Sanhedrin, Paul defends himself sophistically from charges of what one may call heresy….” (pg. 49) or stirring up civil disturbances.

This accusation—“stirring up civil disturbances”—is supported by letter from Claudius against Alexandrians, “stirring up a plague and disturbances for the Jews throughout the world..” (pg. 51)

Paul’s accusers (Asian Greeks) disappear, thus putting the case on “cold storage” for two years. Also interesting the inquiry into Paul’s province, as this could well be forum domicilii but Felix keeps the case. Perhaps because Cilicia did not have Roman authority at the time (it was under client-kings.) By the 4th year of Nero it did. (Did Luke place this event too early? If so, Sherwin-White excuses it: “If Acts has made a slip in implying that Cilicia was already a separate province, the slip is venial, because within two or three years that was the situation.” (pg 57) This is what I mean by Sherwin-White excusing what could be an anachronism revealing lack of historicity.)

Sherwin-White makes only brief mention of Paul’s citizenship; he will deal with Roman Citizenship in a later lecture.

The next lecture regards Paul’s interactions at the cities. The pattern is roughly the same: Paul enters the city, starts to preach in the synagogue. Jews bring complaints to the city leaders, Paul skips town. Repeat at the next stop.

Sherwin-White makes the point the accounts, including the punishments, the persons involved, etc. conform to what would probably happen in the latter 1st century. There is nothing reflecting late Second Century here. I do think this is a stronger point to support Acts was not a late 2nd Century work. In other words, Luke did not put a 190 CE timer in a 60 CE event.

Basically, Sherwin-White notes the stories contain broad general knowledge, conforming to the broad general knowledge we have of the period. With an occasional anachronism that Sherwin-White excuses, and I question what direction it would point us in.


  1. Well, there is such a thing as historical fiction. For instance, Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities is fiction yet it's a great way to learn about the events surrounding the French Revolution.

    It would be wrong, though, to believe the book characters were real.

    But also contemporary fiction is often based on reality. Writes sit at cafes for hours on end watching people come and go, and making them into members of their cast.

    All that to say that I agree. That the OT contains some verifiable facts doesn't make the story of Jesus all true. Maybe he did exist and maybe he was even a preacher. Maybe, even, his followers loved him so much that upon his death they made up all the supernatural stories.

    Let's remember that some people think Elvis is alive.

  2. What are the implications of the fact that Luke lifted so much of his gospel narrative from Mark? If Luke has shown himself to be such a meticulous historian, doesn't that imply that Mark wasn't?

  3. The Beowulf epic contains historical people and battles. 'Nuff said.

    DagoodS, perhaps you will cover the Felix and Festus trials in more detail, so I hope I am not jumping the gun here. But if there are historically accurate elements here, should we not also consider parts that seem ... Fishy? Is it likely that Felix had Paul under house arrest for two years without a charge against him, because, as I read it, he wanted the favor of the Jews? for that matter, why did Festus also desire the favor of the Jews? Between these to guys and Pontius Pilates' desire to suck up to the Jews in the Gospel of John, you would think Rome was easily very easily intimidated - something I don't think history will support. DagoodS, do you think it likely that both Festus and Agrippa could declare Paul innocent of all crimes, then still grant an appeal of his case before Caesar? How many people are granted an audience with the Roman Emperor, presuming it also included a sea voyage to Rome, to try a case that had already been cleared? That seems really strange to me. Does Sherwin-White discuss the historical validity of any of this? Am I reading Acts all wrong? Thanks.

  4. yikes sorry for the typos. Still trying to get used to this new touchscreen.

  5. Vinny,

    Sherwin-White treats the gospels independently. He occasionally refers to one as more accurate, or less than the others. He fails to give any indication whatsoever he is even aware of dependence within the Synoptic Gospels. Therefore he fails to address it.

    Certainly one of the largest problems I have wrestled with is whether the subsequent Gospel writers intended to supplement or supplant the previous gospel they were copying.


    Alas, Sherwin-White fails to cover much material on Felix and Festus, because the protagonist Sherwin-White is addressing—Mommsen—apparently is satisfied with the accounts. Therefore Sherwin-White doesn’t go into much detail.

    He does discuss Paul’s appeal to Rome in a later lecture, and I will cover the topic then. Sherwin-White indicates the problem was that the charge was political—insurrection—but the evidence was theological—Pauline Christianity v Second Temple Judaism, so the procurators may not have known how to handle it.

    While the timing may seem long, it was possible. The Jewish leaders would have been happy, since Paul stayed in jail. Felix and Festus may be off the hook, because they were technically doing their job in investigating it, but not very vociferously. And who was complaining? The Christians (or Paul) had no political influence.

    The sole wrench in that scenario is Paul’s citizenship. Rome, in the form of the emperor, may not look favorably on a Roman citizen being kept so long. But again, who was complaining to Rome?

    Another interesting aspect to think about. If the Sanhedrin did not have capital punishment—why would Paul appeal to Rome, where they definitely did? With the Sanhedrin Paul would be in danger of a beating, of course, but not beheading. Whereas a conviction of insurrection in Rome would be a short walk to a cross or, if he was a citizen, the beheading block. Remember, punishments came swift. There was no long, drawn-out time on “death row.”

    Further, in Felix & Festus defense, Judea and Galilee were a bubbling pot of resistance. The Romans were never quite certain what would set them off. They attempted to give respect and deference to their beliefs, yet the occasional flare-up still occurred.

    The Jews didn’t like being occupied; the Romans were not interested in their land (it was not strategically necessary), so anything “keeping the peace” may have been implemented. Including keeping Paul on ice.

  6. Dagoods,

    I have no idea what scholars have to say about the question, but Luke's prologue leads me to think that he intended his to be the definitive version that would supplant earlier attempts. When Luke changes something in Mark, my assumption would be that he thought that Mark got something wrong rather than that his version and Mark's were equally valid.

  7. Vinny,

    I would tend toward the view Luke in particular was supplanting both Mark and Matthew. Luke (in my opinion) deliberately removes certain aspects he finds unlikely (especially within the birth narrative, trial, burial and resurrection), and modifies Jesus’ teachings to conform to the problems of his era—late First, early Second Century.

    Wonder what Luke would think if he time-traveled to today and listened to all these Christmas pageants mish-mashing his and Matthew’s account? Including the star, the magi, the flight to Egypt with his census, shepherds and Hebraic ritual conformance.