A. N. Sherwin-White’s Two-Generation Rule, Criticisms, and Responses

A. N. Sherwin-White (1911-1993) was an established British historian in the field of Roman Studies and author of Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (1963). The book contains the Sarum Lectures for 1960-1961 dealing the Hellenistic and Roman background of Acts and the synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Most of Sherwin-White’s attention was given to legal and administrative details, but the social and economic setting were also treated. Sherwin-White’s work is commendable and had him credited as “The eminent authority on Roman law and administration” (1).

Sherwin-White is particularly pertinent to debates between skeptics and religious apologists regarding the reliably of the Gospels as sources for the historical Jesus. Sherwin-White’s claim of pertinence is that two generations (roughly seventy years) is not enough time for myths to overcome or eliminate historical data within an oral tradition. This indicates that the synoptic Gospels (and one might add in here the Gospel of John) should be seen to contain some historical information (a historical “core”) given that they were all composed within two generations of the events pertaining to Jesus described.

There have been various claims and allegations regarding misrepresentations of Sherwin-White’s two-generation rule, so this entry will explore what he said and consider objections and responses to those objections.

The Tempo of Myth-Making according to Sherwin-White

Sherwin-White was interested in “the presumed tempo of the development of the didactic myths” regarding events of ancient history. It usually takes a generation or two for “a deal of distortion” to “affect a story that is given literary form… whether for national glorification or political spite, or for the didactic or symbolic exposition of ideas” (Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, p. 189).

Sherwin-White introduces the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484-c. 436 BCE) whose major work Histories was written around the mid-fifth century BCE. In Herodotus “we have a fund of comparable material in the tales of the period of the Persian Wars and the preceding generation”. These events were composed between one and two generations (from forty to seventy years) later “after they had been remodelled by at least one generation of oral transmission. 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” (p. 189).

Sherwin-White noticed similarities between the Gospels and Histories,

“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. For Herodotus the classical concept of ‘koros-hubris-ate’ is no less basically influential than the notion of, for example, oblation in the pattern of the Gospels, affecting both the parts and the whole of the narrative” (p. 189-190).

But, as Sherwin-White explains, “the material of Herodotus presents no intractable difficulty to a critical historian” because it “has not been transformed out of all recognition under the influence of moral and patriotic fervour…” (p. 190)

Sherwin-White is correct. Most historians view Herodotus as an invaluable source of historical information about the Greek and non-Greek Mediterranean civilizations (2). He is also the only source for the Greco-Persian Wars (499-449 BCE).

Most historians hold this view despite the fact that Histories was written after the events described, that its author had obvious agendas and biases, and contains places and people that are historically questionable (3). A few such details might include Herodotus’ talk of the eastern Indians (3.98-106), the northern Hyperboreans (4.13, 32-36), and the southern Ethiopeans (3.17-26). Some other criticisms of Herodotus regard his inclusion of extraordinary matters, selective presentation of claims, and judgmental portrayals of particular peoples. But these criticisms are considered marginal and are not seen to override Herodotus as a historical source.

Cicero (106-43 BCE), who called Herodotus the “father of history”, considered him to be a liar. The famous philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) denounced Herodotus’ mistakes over small details of natural history and criticized him as a “storyteller”. So, Herodotus had his critics.

But historian Arnaldo Momigliano found these criticisms interesting because “His bad reputation in the ancient world is something exceptional that requires explanation” (4). Momigliano noticed the reason for this skepticism. Herodotus was mistrusted precisely because of his “authentic achievements” as a historian. The “legend of Herodotus the liar is the result of the authentic achievements of Herodotus the historian” (5).

Despite his biases and having written about the events much later, Herodotus “succeeded in putting together a trustworthy account of events he was too young to have witnessed and of countries whose languages he did not understand” (6). As another historian states, “His work holds up very well when judged by the yardstick of modern scholarship” (7).

Sherwin-White agreed and saw Histories as a good source worth comparing to the synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. He concurred with most historians that myth had not succeeded stamping out a historical core within Herodotus’ Histories written within a generation or two of the events described. So,

“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” (p. 190).

Sherwin-White used the story of the murder of the Athenian tyrant Hipparchus (d. 514 BCE) at the hands of Harmodius (d. 514 BCE) and Aristogeiton (d. 514 BCE) to make his case. Harmodius and Aristogeiton assassinated Hipparchus in 514 BC, but the tyranny lasted another four years before the establishment of the Athenian democracy. Popular opinion, especially current in the mid-fifth century, created a myth that Harmodius and Aristogeiton destroyed the tyranny and freed Athens. This was current in the mid-fifth century. But Sherwin-White argued that Herodotus, writing well after the assassination, and despite generally taking the popular view of the establishment of the democracy, gives the true version and not the myth about the death of Hipparchus. He continues,

“A generation later the more critical Thucydides was able to uncover a detailed account of exactly what happened on the fatal day in 514 BC. 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” (p. 190-191).

What did Sherwin-White make of this? He stated it as follows,

“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” (p. 191).

This he believed also applied to the Gospels because,

“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.” (p. 191).

It therefore does not matter, Sherwin-White stated, if “you accept the attribution of the Gospels to eyewitnesses or not” because the Gospels contain historical information (p. 191). He pointed to the trial of Jesus saying that “The impression of a historical tradition is nowhere more strongly felt than in the various accounts of the trial of Christ” (p. 191). Here Sherwin-White is in agreement with all critical historians who conclude that the New Testament narratives of Jesus enduring trials and subsequently being crucified is indisputable on historical grounds (8).

Even the latest of the four Gospels, the Gospel of John, written around 90 CE and 60 years after Jesus’ death, shows signs of containing historical information despite it often being viewed with skepticism: “John, who despite many improbabilities and obscurities yet gives a convincingly contemporary version of the political pressure on Pilate in the age of Tiberius” (p. 192).

Sherwin-White therefore considered the authors of the synoptic Gospels “primitive historians” and stated that “there is a remarkable parallel between their technique and that of Herodotus, the father of history, in their anecdotal conception of a narrative” (p. 192). 

Academic Reviews

Sherwin-White’s Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament was impactful upon twentieth-century scholarship and scholars writing for various peer-revised academic journals. Just a few are worth noting.

According to Robert M. Grant, an expert in New Testament and Early Christianity, Sherwin-White’s work has “cast a great deal of light on the point of intersection between Rome and the early Christians” and he “has performed a notable service not only in regard to the indispensable background of the trials of Jesus and of Paul but also in regard to the general reliability of the New Testament documents” (9). 

Frederick Grant referred to Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament as an “extremely valuable little book, and [he] commend[s] it to all students of the New Testament” (10). He found Sherwin-White’s comparison of the Gospel authors to Herodotus “interesting” but reminds readers that “the gospel writers were much more than historians” and whether or not they chose to write history is a matter of continued debate.

John Crook, who was a Professor of Ancient History at the University of Cambridge, writing for The Classical Review, found Sherwin-White’s book “admirable”. He did offer criticisms regarding Sherwin-White’s use of several technical terms mostly familiar to experts in Roman history but concluded that “Roman historians will recognize just how much up-to-date erudition is packed into this little book” and that “the pleasure and profit in reading it are equal and great” (11).

Henry Chadwick who wrote for the The Journal of Roman Studies commended Sherwin-White’s “all absorbing” book. The book is based upon “highly expert lectures” and its statements are amply “supported by a basic scaffolding of references to the sources and to their principal interpreters” (12).

Criticisms and Responses

A few skeptics, for various reasons, do not wish to view the Gospels and New Testament as sources containing somewhat reliable information for the historical Jesus and have therefore criticized Sherwin-Whites’ two-generation rule and use of Herodotus as an example of the tempo for the development of myth.

These criticisms include Sherwin-White presenting only a single item of evidence in the form of just Herodotus; that the Gospels do contain myths and therefore disprove the two-generation rule; that the Gospel authors were not critical historians in the same way as Herodotus was; that unlike Histories, the Gospel authors are anonymous; and that the Gospels are propaganda.

These criticisms deserve a necessary response.

Sherwin-White’s use of Herodotus’ Histories as an example of myth being unable to prevail over the hard historical core of an oral tradition stands as an appropriate analogy unless the skeptic can undermine the comparison itself.

What about the claim that the Gospels contain myths and that this disproves the two-generation rule? Reviewer Rudolf Gelsey was of this view,

“Sherwin-White argues, for instance, that the two generations between the actual events and writing of the Gospels is too short a time-span for myth-making to occur. But does not the espousal by the evangelists of the virgin birth and the physical resurrection of Jesus contain the very stuff of myths, and yet these myths were also developed within the short time of two generations. If argumentation by analogy is allowed, then the analysis by Sherwin-White would militate against his own conclusions”. (13)

This criticism dismantles a straw man because Sherwin-White did not argue that everything in the Gospels is wholly historically accurate and that the Gospels do not include any myths. Rather, he argued that two generations is not enough time for myth to blot out the historical core existing within the Gospel sources and oral tradition. Almost all historians agree with this view. Most scholars view the Virgin Birth and Infancy narratives as most likely unhistorical but still acknowledge that these narratives do not undercut the historical core of the Gospel stories detailing Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion. 

Regarding the resurrection narratives, Gelsey is too hasty in dismissing them as “myth”. Many critical historians acknowledge on historical grounds that a series of events after the death of Jesus took place and convinced the disciples, James (Jesus’ skeptical brother), and Paul (an early persecutor of Christians) that Jesus had been supernaturally raised from the dead by God and had appeared to them (14). Because historical science is a secular discipline, scholars generally avoid rendering judgment over whether or not this involved an authentic miracle. Yet most historians still consider something dramatic to have occurred. Consider a few quotes on this. 

Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson writes that “Some sort of powerful, transformative experience is required to generate the sort of movement earliest Christianity was” (15). The use of the words “some sort” is an attempt to avoid making a truth judgement regarding the validity of the miracle the Gospels seem to suggest when narrating the resurrection. E. P. Sanders agrees but did not wish to affirm that a miracle had taken place: “That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know” (16). According to Paula Fredrickson,

“I know in their own terms, what they saw was the raised Jesus. That’s what they say, and then all the historic evidence we have afterwards attests to their conviction that that’s what they saw. I’m not saying that they really did see the raised Jesus. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what they saw. But I do know as an historian, that they must have seen something” (17).

These views suggest that the resurrection cannot be merely dismissed as “myth”. Much more needs to be discussed here and will inevitably cascade into worldview debates between skeptics and religious persons.

The claim that the Gospel authors were not critical like Herodotus was overstates the case. Certainly, the Gospel authors had an obvious agenda (often dismissed by skeptics as “propaganda”), as does every author, including Herodotus. But that noted, the Gospel authors do show signs of being critical. The very intro of the Gospel of Luke affirms the author to have “carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account…” (1:3). 

Moreover, the Gospel authors include many critical remarks and events regarding Jesus and the disciples that suggest historicity and were almost certainly not fabricated or merely created from whole cloth. A few examples include the account of Jesus calling Peter, his closest and most trusted disciple, “Satan”, the disciples’ repeated stupidity in their inability to understand the basics of many of Jesus’ teachings, Jesus’ rejection by his family in his home town, Jesus being displayed as weak in his desperate last minute attempt to plead with God in the Garden of Gethsemane to not be crucified for the sins of humankind, and, perhaps most persuasive, the very fact that Jesus, depicted in the Gospels as the Son of God, died such a shameful and dishonorable death on a Roman cross, etc.

Indeed the Gospel authors are anonymous. But skeptics overstate this in favor of their case. Anonymous does not mean that the authors are prima facie unreliable. Nor does it mean that the authors are completely unknown to us as if they existed in a vacuum from which the Gospels dropped out. Although historians will remain tentative and engage in critical debate, there is agreement that we can know details about the Gospel writers. For example, regarding the Gospel of Matthew, one can know with some certainty, according to scholar R. T. France, that the author was “a Jewish Christian, with an extensive knowledge of and a strong interest in the Old Testament, familiar with scribal traditions and with the methods of Rabbinic debate, and capable of writing in good Greek, even though his own cultural background was clearly Semitic” (18). Essentially, whether we attach the name “Matthew” to this Gospel is immaterial as it says nothing about historicity. 

It is possible to view the Gospel authors as ancient biographers in some sense, or as “primitive historians” to use Sherwin-White’s phrase (p. 192). But this is not to suggest that the Gospel authors are the same as contemporary biographers or to modern secular historians who attempt to detach themselves from their material in order to be as objective as possible. Such differences need to be acknowledged and is why scholar Donald Hagnar refers to the Gospels as “biography-like” rather than biographies in the ordinary, modern sense of the word (19).

The skeptic attempts to elevate Herodotus’ trustworthiness as a writer and downplay the Gospel authors as being unreliable. But the differences are exaggerated and usually trivialize important similarities between Herodotus and the Gospel writers. Both Herodotus and the Gospel authors possessed obvious agendas and motives for writing; both show strong signs of placing their narratives within space and time; both describe people and places that really exist or existed; both write after the events described; both are selective in what they present; both include extraordinary details; both contain judgmental portrayals of persons; both were criticized by opponents; and so on. In this way, a comparison of the Gospels to Herodotus’ Histories appears reasonable. 

Often cited as a major difference is that Herodotus traveled for research purposes and that this was allegedly not done by the Gospel writers. But this is also overstating the case because historians are in the dark concerning whether or not the Gospel authors did any traveling (with the possible exception of Luke’s author based on what he tells us in the introduction regarding his critical stance and investigation). It would seem unjustified to dismiss out of hand the possibility that the Gospel authors traveled to talk with early Christians within various early communities in order to obtain information from them about the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. Equally, it is possible that the Gospel authors did not travel for research purposes. But for the skeptic to affirm the latter as certain, probably because it is more germane to his skeptical agenda, is going beyond what we know. 

Having evaluated what Sherwin-White said about the two-generation rule and the various criticisms and responses to them, one might reasonably conclude that the rule is relevant and applicable to the Gospel accounts of Jesus. While not without criticism, Sherwin-White’s use of the Gospel sources and the Book of Acts were laudable and therefore “useful for its clear reporting and discussion of some of the latest work on such questions as the trial of Christ and the various trials of St. Paul” (20). 

References

Sherwin-White, A. N. 1963. Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

1. Grant, Frederick. 1964. “Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament by A. N. Sherwin-White.” The Journal of Theological Studies 15(2):352-358. p. 352.

2. Simpson, Michael. 1988. “Review: Herodotus and Modern History.” The Sewanee Review 96(2):292-297. 

3. Dozeman, Thomas B. 2003. “Geography and History in Herodotus and in Ezra-Nehemiah”. Journal of Biblical Literature 122(3):449-466. p. 453.

4. Momigliano, Arnaldo. 1958. “The Place of Herodotus in the History of Historiography.” History 43(47)1-13. p. 2.

5. Momigliano, Arnaldo. 1958. Ibid. p. 8.

6. Momigliano, Arnaldo. 1958. Ibid. p. 3. 

7. Strauss, Barry. 2014. One of the Greatest Storytellers Who Ever Lived. Available.

8. Bishop, James. 2015. The Historicity of Jesus Christ’s Crucifixion. Available.

9. Grant, Robert M. 1964. “Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament by A. N.Sherwin-White.” Classical Philology 59(4):304. p. 304.

10. Grant, Frederick. 1964. “Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament by A. N. Sherwin-White”. The Journal of Theological Studies 15(2):352-358. p. 358.

11. Crook, John. 1964. “Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament by A. N.Sherwin-White”. The Classical Review 14(2):198-200. p. 198.

12. Chadwick, Henry. 1965. “Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament by A. N.Sherwin-White”. The Journal of Roman Studies 55(1/2):276-277. p. 276.

13. Gelsey, Rudolph C. 1964. “Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament by A. N. Sherwin-White”. The American Journal of Legal History 8(4):348-351. p. 351.

14. Bishop, James. 2015. 25 Scholars (and 42 Quotes) on the Evidence for Jesus Christ’s Resurrection. Available.

15. Johnson, Luke T. 1996. The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco. p. 136.

16. Sanders, E. P. 1995. The Historical Figure of Jesus. Penguin UK.

17. ABC, Interview in The Search for Jesus w/ Peter Jennings (June 26, 2000), as cited by Gary Habermas.

18. France, R. T. 2008. Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary. Inter-Varsity Press. p. 35.

19. Hagner, Donald. 2012. The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction. Baker Books. p. 131

20. Nicholls, J. J. 1964. “A. N. SHERWIN-WHITE: “Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament” (Book Review)”. The Journal of Religious History 3(1):92-95. p. 93.

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