Christian Apologists Distort Sherwin-White’s Statements on Legendary Development in Antiquity

A.N. Sherwin-White

Most non-Christians, theists and non-theists, believe that the Gospels are legendary tales. Most of us do not claim that the Gospels are myths. There is a big difference. Legends contain some truth. Myths are pure fiction. The big question with legends is: Which parts of a legend are fact and which parts are fiction?

Conservative Christian apologists claim that in Antiquity, legends took hundreds of years to develop. According to these apologists, ancient peoples were very careful to maintain their oral traditions. They did not allow embellishments. Therefore, Christians can be certain that the Gospels are historically reliable eyewitness accounts. They know that without eyewitness testimony most modern people will come to the conclusion that the alleged Resurrection is a tall tale.

So apologists MUST insist that legends could not have developed between the time of Jesus’ death and the writing of the first gospel approximately 30-40 years later. To admit it was possible, would be to capitulate to skeptics!

Anyone living in the 21st century knows how quickly a rumor can become a legend. One needs to look no further than the websites of QAnon bloggers. But according to apologists, first century people weren’t like us. Baloney.

But apologists like Lee Strobel and William Lane Craig have found research to support their claims! Problem is, they have distorted the researcher’s statements:

“Christian apologists often cite Sherwin-White as if he proposed some empirically established process whereby fact and myth fight it out in the oral tradition with myth needing several generations in which to subdue its opponent. Sherwin-White’s example, however, suggests that each person in the oral tradition makes up his own mind whether he prefers the legendary version of events or the true one. If enough people are interested in the true version of events to preserve it and pass it on, it will be accessible after several generations even if the mythological version proves quite popular. That’s a far cry from some inviolable principle that the true version will always survive within the oral tradition for some definable period of years.

In the case of the gospels, the questions remains (1) whether anyone was interested enough in the historical Jesus to preserve and pass on accurate information and (2) whether the evangelists were sufficiently interested in recovering that Jesus rather than reporting myths that furthered their theological agendas. It is certainly possible that the answer to both questions is yes, but Sherwin-White’s musings don’t support Craig’s insistence that there must recoverable historical information in the gospels.

I often get into debates about whether Irenaeus actually had any basis in 180 A.D. for attributing authorship of the canonical gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Invariably, someone will argue that there must have been some factual basis for these names or someone who knew the truth would have corrected Irenaeus If such errors are so easily resolved, how come nothing has deterred Craig from repeating his misstatements for so many years? I see no reason to think that second century believers would have been any more diligent in pointing out Irenaeus’ errors than today’s believers are in pointing out Craig’s. Nor can I see any reason to believe that Irenaeus would have been any more conscientious in his fact checking than Craig.”



7 thoughts on “Christian Apologists Distort Sherwin-White’s Statements on Legendary Development in Antiquity

  1. This is a fascinating topic. Wm. Lane Craig has said, “When Professor Sherwin-White turns to the gospels, he states that for the gospels to be legends, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be “unbelievable.” ”

    I’ve seen Sherwin-White’s book and read the relevant chapter. No, he didn’t say that. WLC is simply wrong. But when apologists want a sound bite, WLC has the juicier quote, so that’s the one they typically go for.

    My summary of the Sherwin-White issue:,A.%20N.%20Sherwin%2DWhite,-%2C%20historian

    Liked by 1 person

      1. No. I haven’t blogged for many years. I used to have a 45-minute train ride to and from a job where I sat in front a computer all day. Nowadays, I drive to a job where I spend a much smaller fraction of my day in front of a computer. I still participate in discussions here and there, but not on the scale I once did.

        Liked by 1 person

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