Monday, February 14, 2011

The Historicity of the New Testament

View ImageOver the past week or so, I've been part of a discussion on Vinny's blog about the historicity of the New Testament narratives--or specifically, about a book called Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, by the late A. N. Sherwin-White, an Oxford professor who specialized in ancient Rome at the time of the New Testament.

Vinny has taken issue with some Christian apologists because he feels that they are "abusing" the professor by misrepresenting his position. Well, I have been reading the book carefully, and I've seen no sign of abuse. And unless the author of Sherwin-White's 1993 obituary in The Times was also an abusive apologist, the apologists in question characterize his general position accurately. The obituary talked about "his conviction of the essential historicity of the narratives in the New Testament."

Vinny is correct that the apologists were careless in their choice of words. One of them put a word in quotations that Sherwin-White never used, another one changed a word to mean the opposite, and a third used generally imprecise language. I am familiar with the first two apologists, and they are usually very careful about what they say, so I don't know what happened there. But they captured the general message of Sherwin-White, and if anything, they failed to utilize the strongest parts of the book.

Most of our discussion pertained to the last eight pages of the book, where Sherwin-White criticizes "form-criticism of the extremer sort" and talks about the rate of development of "didactic myths" in historical documents in general, and what this means for the New Testament writings. That is what the apologists and Vinny have focused on. Vinny has argued, based on those last eight pages, that Sherwin-White's statements "do not admit more than the possibility that a historical core within the gospel material can be found."

We have discussed that at length, and I have argued that Vinny is taking Sherwin-White's words out of context, but at this point I would prefer to talk about the substantive parts of the book, which is a detailed analysis of the historicity of the trial of Jesus and the book of Acts from the perspective of someone who has immersed himself in the Roman Empire "until its understanding becomes second nature." He starts with the trial of Jesus, which took place in "the Roman orbit at Jerusalem," and then moves on to the book of Acts.

These are his conclusions: "For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming . . . any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted."

He says the following about the trial of Jesus: "The impression of a historical tradition is nowhere more strongly felt than in the various accounts of the trial of Christ, analysed in Roman terms in the second lecture. Consider the close interdependence of Mark and Matthew, supplementing each other even in particular phrases, yet each with his particular contribution, then Luke with his more coherent and explicit account of the charges and less clear version of the activity of the Sanhedrin, finally John, who despite many improbabilities and obscurities yet gives a convincingly contemporary version of the political pressure on Pilate in the age of Tiberius."

Sherwin-White discusses the trial of Jesus in great detail in lecture two, frequently addressing claims by earlier scholars that certain parts are unhistorical. For example, theologian and church historian Hans Lietzmann argues that Jesus was only charged with insurrection and not with the offense of blasphemy according to Jewish law. In other words, the trial before the Sanhedrin was a fabrication motivated by a desire to pin the blame on the Jews. Sherwin-White explains Lietzmann's logic as follows:
He poses a dilemma: either the Sanhedrin sentenced Christ and carried out the sentence in the Jewish fashion, by stoning, or Pilate sentenced Christ and carried out the sentence in Roman fashion, by crucifixion. Since all the evidence agrees that the execution was in Roman fashion by Romans, then the trial and condemnation by the Sanhedrin is a fabrication. He then presents an alternative proof. The Sanhedrin had the power of capital punishment, and had no need of a fiat from the procurator to carry out its execution.
However, Sherwin-White says that John 18:31 is correct that the Sanhedrin did not have the power of capital punishment. "When we find that the capital power was the most jealously guarded of all the attributes of government, not even entrusted to the principal assistants of the governors, and specifically withdrawn, in the instance of Cyrene, from the competence of local courts, it becomes very questionable indeed for the Sanhedrin." He spends about twelve pages developing this argument because of its centrality.

This is just one example of the kind of detailed analysis Sherwin-White does of the trial of Jesus and the book of Act. He then addresses the argument by Lietzmann that the trial before the Sanhedrin could not have taken place at night, by saying, "The Jews, because of the festival, were in a hurry. Hence there was every reason to hold the unusual night session if they were to catch the Procurator at the right moment."

And he says about the soldiers casting lots and dividing among themselves the clothing of Jesus: "Given the relevant prophecy from the Old Testament [Psalm 22:18], there is every reason to assume that this is one of the evolved myths dear to the form-critics. But, as has been familiar since Mommsen, legal texts confirm that it was the accepted right of the executioner's squad to share out the minor possessions of their victim."

He makes the following general statement about the synoptic Gospel accounts of the trial: "It is noteworthy that though Luke at first reading gives the most intelligible account of the trial as a whole, and Mark the least, yet by no means all the advantages lie with Luke. On certain technical points, such as the reference to the tribunal and the formulation of the sentence, Mark and Matthew are superior. But Luke is remarkable in that his additional materials--the full formulation of the charges before Pilate, the reference to Herod, and the proposed acquittal with admonition--are all technically correct."

He goes on to spend even more time on the book of Acts, affirming the accuracy of the legal proceedings and other details. For example, he points out that the charge against Paul in Acts 24:5 ("stirring up a plague and disturbances for the Jews throughout the world") is "precisely the one to bring against a Jew during the Principate of Claudius or the early years of Nero. The accusers of Paul were putting themselves on the side of the government."

Going back to the last eight pages of the book, where Sherwin-White "discusses the whole topic of historicity [of secular and ecclesiastical documents] briefly and very generally," he says that "a hard core or basic layer of historical truth can be recovered even from the most deplorable of our tertiary sources." (However, in no way does he imply that the New Testament books are "deplorable" sources. He says about historical documents in general that "we are seldom in the happy position of dealing at only one remove from a contemporary source.") This subject of a hard historical core came up repeatedly during our discussion, and one participant asked whether Sherwin-White gave any indication of what he considered the historical core of the New Testament narratives. Would the empty tomb qualify?

Sherwin-White says nothing about the empty tomb, but he confirms the historicity of a great many details, and I have not come across any that he has deemed unhistorical. He confirms minor details like the casting of lots for the clothes of Jesus as well as the political pressure the Jewish leaders put on Pontius Pilate by saying that he would not be a friend of Caesar if he released Jesus. Of course he also affirms the historicity of the Jews not having capital power in the first century. He says that all the details about the trial in the four Gospels are accurate, even though they contain "mild discrepancies." He does not call them contradictions, even though he uses that word to describe the four accounts of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.

And although he says little about the parts of the Gospels that take place in Galilee, he explains the lack of external confirmation as follows: "That the degree of confirmation in Graeco-Roman terms is less for the Gospels than for Acts is due, as these lectures have tried to show, to the differences in their regional setting. As soon as Christ enters the Roman orbit at Jerusalem, the confirmation begins. For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming."

So I can with confidence say that the apologists did not overstate Sherwin-White's position. As I've said before, they failed to fully utilize this fascinating work by focusing exclusively on the concluding pages, and leaving skeptics to try to read into the qualifying statements something that is diametrically opposed to what Sherwin-White argues in detail in the more substantive parts of the book.