How Is Ancient Myth-Making Tested? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

The stories about Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, as reported in the 27 New Testament documents, were all written down within 70 years of Jesus’s death. In fact, most of the documents were written within 50 years of his death. Given that average life expectancy in first century Palestine was around 30 years, this means that, conservatively, most of these documents were written within two generations of Jesus’s death.

Many skeptics of Christianity claim that even 50 years is enough time for myths and legends to completely obscure the central facts around the life of Jesus. Skepticism runs the gamut from “Jesus never existed” to “we know only a few trivial facts about Jesus and nothing more.”

Can we test the rate of myth-making in the ancient near east? Maybe we can. The famous historian A. N. Sherwin-White addressed the issue of whether the central facts around a historical event could be obscured by myth-making in his book Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. Sherwin-White identifies the work of ancient Greek historian Herodotus as a means to test myth-making. Why Herotodus? Sherwin-White explains:

In his history, written in mid-fifth century B.C., we have a fund of comparable material in the tales of the period of the Persian Wars and the preceding generation. These are retold by Herodotus from forty to seventy years later, after they had been remodeled by at least one generation of oral transmission.

Is if fair to compare Herotodus to the Gospel writers?

The parallel with the authors of the Gospels is by no means so far-fetched as it might seem. Both regard their material with enthusiasm rather than detached criticism. Both are the first to produce a written narrative of great events which they regard as a mighty saga, national or ecclesiastical and esoterical as the case may be. For both their story is the vehicle of a moral or a religious idea which shapes the narrative.

Can modern historians extract accurate historical facts from Herotodus?

The material of Herodotus presents no intractable difficulty to a critical historian. The material has not been transformed out of all recognition under the influence of moral and patriotic fervour, in a period of time as long, if not longer, than can be allowed for the gestation of the form-myths of the synoptic gospels.

How, then, can we use Herotodus to test the tempo of myth-making? We’ll cover that in part 2.

  • Bill Pratt,

    I understand your blog focuses on answers sufficient for Christians. I suppose Christians will be pleased to hear a small quote–taken from a much larger work—seemingly supporting some aspect surrounding New Testament documents’ accuracy.

    However, I strongly caution Christians against utilizing Sherwin-White’s quote when discussing with skeptics. Any skeptic reading his book (I have, writing a seven-part review on my blog) will understand why Sherwin-White is not at all helpful (even quite damaging) to claims regarding myths within New Testament stories. Christians will find themselves hopelessly out-maneuvered by the skeptic, and forced to abandon the discussion.

    Simply put, in Christian-to-Christian discussion, Sherwin-White will likely cause each person to be sufficiently gratified; in Christian-to-Skeptic, the Christian will not have a very good time.

  • Bill,

    Could you identify the apologist upon whose interpretation of Sherwin-White you are relying?

  • Myself. I have the book and read the section which contains these quotations myself.