Prominent historian Sherwin White is quite informative here. After having studied the works of Herodotus he came to the conclusion that two generations was not enough time for myth to impugn historical facts. White explains that “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” (1).
White goes on to draw an analogy, saying that “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 has been pointed out that the crucifixion of Jesus, his burial, and his post-mortem appearances to the disciples and skeptics alike are the best-attested facts historians have. If White’s argument follows then it would be reasonable to conclude that these facts were part “of their material” and “kernel” that would not have been erased.
Secondly, regarding the actual oral transmission, within the early church, the skill would be highly developed. The interval of time between the events themselves and recording of them in the gospels is too short to have allowed the memory of what had or had not actually happened to be erased. As William Lane Craig, a philosopher and New Testament scholar who wrote his thesis on the evidence for the resurrection writes: “The Jewish transmission of sacred traditions was highly developed and reliable. In an oral culture like that of first century Palestine the ability to memorize and retain large tracts of oral tradition was a highly prized and highly developed skill. From the earliest age children in the home, elementary school, and the synagogue were taught to memorize faithfully sacred tradition. The disciples would have exercised similar care with the teachings of Jesus” (2).
It is also possible that those who had seen and heard Jesus continued to live on. And that the early Jesus traditions were likely supervised by the apostles would act as a natural check on tendencies to elaborate the facts.
White has persuasively argued that there is a too shorter time period in which myth could develop to impugn the historical core. One must also bear in mind that this assumes that the gospel authors are being honest in their accounts. Also, as the 20th century biblical scholar Sir Frederick Kenyon one remarked:
“The interval then between the data of original composition and the earliest extant evidence become so small to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scripture have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established” (3).
1. White, A. 1963. Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament.
2. Craig, W. The Evidence for Jesus. Available.
3. Sir Frederick Kenyon quoted by Josh McDowell in The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (1999). p. 35.