How Is Ancient Myth-Making Tested? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

In part 1 we introduced A. N. Sherwin-White’s analysis of myth-making in the ancient near east in his book Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. Sherwin-White uses the Greek historian Herotodus to test the tempo of myth-making. He concludes:

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.

So, what is his evidence?

A revealing example is provided by the story of the murder of the Athenian tyrant Hipparchus at the hands of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who became the pattern of all tyrannicides. The true story was that they assassinated Hipparchus in 514 B.C., but the tyranny lasted another four years before the establishment of the Athenian democracy. Popular opinion created a myth to the effect that Harmodius and Aristogeiton destroyed the tyranny and freed Athens. This was current in the mid-fifth century.

The assassination happened in 514 B.C., but by about 450 B.C. there was a story going around that the assassination occurred in 514 B.C. and the tyranny ended in 514 B.C. The second part of the story was false, as the tyranny did not end for four more years. Sherwin-White continues:

Yet Herodotus, writing at that time, and generally taking the popular view of the establishment of the democracy, gives the true version and not the myth about the death of Hipparchus. A generation later the more critical Thucydides was able to uncover a detailed account of exactly what happened on the fatal day in 514 B.C. It would have been natural and easy for Herodotus to give the mythical version. He does not do so because he had a particular interest in a greater figure than Harmodius or Aristogeiton, that is, Cleisthenes, the central person in the establishment of the democracy.

What are we to make of Herodotus and Thucydides accurate re-telling of the events of 514 B.C.?

All this suggests that, however strong the myth-forming tendency, the falsification does not automatically and absolutely prevail even with a writer like Herodotus, who was naturally predisposed in favour of certain political myths, and whose ethical and literary interests were stronger than his critical faculty. The Thucydidean version is a salutary warning that even a century after a major event it is possible in a relatively small or closed community for a determined inquirer to establish a remarkably detailed account of a major event, by inquiry within the inner circle of the descendants of those concerned with the event itself.

How can we relate this to the Gospel authors?

Not that one imagines that the authors of the Gospels set to work precisely like either Herodotus or Thucydides. But it can be maintained that those who had a passionate interest in the story of Christ, even if their interest in events was parabolical and didactic rather than historical, would not be led by that very fact to pervert and utterly destroy the historical kernel of their material. It can also be suggested that it would be no harder for the Disciples and their immediate successors to uncover detailed narratives of the actions and sayings of Christ within their closed community, than it was for Herodotus and Thucydides to establish the story of the great events of 520-480 B.C.

Notice that Sherwin-White’s conclusion is extremely cautious. He is not saying that it can be shown that every event recorded in the Gospels can be historically corroborated. He is saying, however, that the authors of the Gospels can reasonably be expected to get the historical kernels of Jesus’s life correct.

In my view, since the resurrection is reported in all the Gospels, as well as other books in the New Testament, it is quite fair to say that the resurrection is part of the historical kernel that would not be distorted. If the resurrection is not part of the historical kernel, then nothing is. Therefore, to say that the resurrection narratives are mythical flies directly in the face of Sherwin-White’s analysis.

  • Did Sherwin-White deal with the “hard historical core” of any miracle accounts of Jesus—or was it only the base historical events? Did Sherwin-White deal with Herodotus’ claims regarding miraculous accounts as being “hard historical core” or did Sherwin-White abandon those accounts as being mythical?

    While you may claim the resurrection is the “hard historical core”—did Sherwin-White? If not, how does his analysis regarding non-miraculous events maintaining a “hard historical core” in the face of myth help?

    For example, I agree to the “hard historical core” that Jesus lived, and was crucified. By what method—according to Sherwin-White—could we extend the “hard historical core” to anything beyond that? Especially–under Sherwin-White—to anything miraculous?

  • But of course there was a myth that arose concerning Harmodius and Aristogeiton and lots of people believed it. The fact that some people remembered the truth about Cleisthenes doesn’t mean that they could prevent the myth from developing and spreading. It simply meant that there were some people who had an interest in preserving the true story.

    The reason so many people liked the myth is that it featured two Athenians prominently in the overthrow of the tyranny. The myth downplayed the role that the foreign intervention of Sparta had played in the establishment of the Athenian democracy. Interestingly, Cleisthenes himself played a role in encouraging the myth by erecting a statue of Harmodius and Aristogeiton. Apparently, even he saw the value in the Athenian people believing that they, rather than the Spartans, had been responsible for their own liberation.

    So the question becomes whether the gospel writers were interested in preserving the actual events or whether they were interested in perpetuating the myths. What Sherwin-White’s analysis suggests is that the true facts might have still been available had the gospel writers been interested in discovering them and recording them. It doesn’t give us any reason to think that they were.