Oral Tradition and the Game of Telephone: A.N. Sherwin-White’s Famous Quote

Telephone and the gospelsThe time from the death of Jesus to the writing of the first gospel was about 40 years. An exciting story being passed along orally in a world full of supernatural characters seems bound to be “improved,” deliberately or inadvertently, as it moves from person to person.

While some epistles were written earlier, the details Paul gives about the life of Jesus can be summarized in one very short paragraph (more here). How can we dismiss the possibility that any actual history of Jesus is lost through a decades-long game of telephone?

Christian rebuttal

Apologist William Lane Craig says that 40 years is too short a period for legend to develop. He points to a claim made by A.N. Sherwin-White in Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (1963).

According to Sherwin-White, the writings of Herodotus enable us to determine the rate at which legend accumulates, and the tests show that even two generations is too short a time span to allow legendary tendencies to wipe out the hard core of historical facts. 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.” More generations would be needed. (Source)

Craig’s conclusion is quoted widely and was popularized in Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ (2008), and it sounds like a thorough slap down of the legend claim. However, when we see what Sherwin-White actually said, we find that Craig’s confidence is unwarranted.

(From this point forward, I’ll use “SW” to refer to historian A.N. Sherwin-White.)

SW never said “unbelievable”

Incredibly, the word “unbelievable,” which Craig puts into the mouth of SW, is not used by him in the relevant chapter in this book. If the word comes from another source, Craig doesn’t cite it. Craig also quotes the word in his essay in Jesus Under Fire (1995).

We all make mistakes, but it’s been almost twenty years. Where is Craig’s correction?

What did SW actually say?

From his Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament:

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. (RSRL, 190)

SW proposes an interesting experiment. If we can find examples in history where legend has crept into oral history and we have more reliable sources that let us compare that with what actually happened, we can measure how fast legendary material accumulates.

Notice the limitations in what SW is saying.

  • He cites several examples where historians have (hopefully) successfully sifted truth from myth, but Herodotus is the only example used to put a rate on the loss of historic truth. This isn’t a survey of, say, a dozen random historic accounts that each validates a two-generation limit.
  • He isn’t saying that myth doesn’t accumulate, and he’s not proposing a rate at which it does. He’s writing instead about the loss of accurate history (“the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core”).
  • He is careful to use the word “suggest” above. William Lane Craig imagines an immutable law that SW clearly isn’t proposing.

What is SW’s point?

Here is more of what SW is saying.

All this suggests that, however strong the myth-forming tendency, the falsification does not automatically and absolutely prevail. (RSRL, 191)

The point of my argument is not to suggest the literal accuracy of ancient sources, secular or ecclesiastical, but to offset the extreme skepticism with which the New Testament narratives are treated in some quarters. (RSRL, 193)

Craig imagines that myth never overtakes historic truth in two generations. By contrast, SW says that myth doesn’t always overtake historic truth.

Consider Craig’s difficulty. He proposes what may be the most incredible story possible: that a supernatural being created the universe and came to earth as a human and that this was recorded in history. We have a well-populated bin labeled “Mythology” for stories like this. If Craig is to argue that, no, this one is actually history, SW’s statement is useless. “Well, myth might not have overtaken historic truth” does very little to keep Craig’s religion from the Mythology bin.

Limitations in SW’s statement

  • Though SW is confident that history can be sifted out of the myth, he gives no procedure for reliably doing so.
  • It’s been 50 years since his book, which is plenty of time for scholars to weigh in. If they’ve said nothing, that gives us little confidence that SW is onto something useful. But if a consensus response has emerged, that is what we should be considering, not SW’s original proposal.
  • The examples that SW considers—Tiberius Caesar, Alexander the Great, and others—are all important public figures. Jesus was not. Legendary drift is slow when everyone experienced the impact of the figure directly and might correct a story themselves. By contrast, only a handful of people could rein in an errant Jesus story (more here).
  • SW’s examples are all secular leaders. Is Herodotus a relevant example when we’re concerned about the growth of a religious tale? Consider Sathya Sai Baba, an Indian guru who died in 2011 with millions of followers. Supernatural tales grew up around him in his own lifetime. (More on the growth of legends here and here.)

SW proves too much!

William Lane Craig must walk a fine line since he can’t completely reject mythological development. Myth is his enemy when it comes to the New Testament books written 40 to 70 years after the death of Jesus. He must downplay myth to label these as history. But myth is his friend when it comes to the noncanonical books of the second century—the Gospel of Thomas, the Shepherd of Hermas, and so on. Here he imagines the mists of time separating the authors of those books from the actual history.

And, bizarrely, Craig’s own quote gives support to the skeptics’ concern about legend creeping into the gospels! Apologists don’t read SW’s chapter directly; they prefer Craig’s quote. It’s a much better data point with which to argue that the gospels are accurate—if you can get past that small issue of it being completely inaccurate.

Sticky, not accurate, is what gets passed along. This is true for Craig as it is for the gospel story.

In the beginning, God created man in his own image.
Man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.
— Rousseau

References: These sources provided much valuable material for this post.

Photo credit: Bindaas Madhavi