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Friday, February 19, 2010

How Long Does it Take a Legend to Develop?

Evangelical apologists, citing Roman historian A. N. Sherwin-White, argue that the gospel of Mark's account of the empty tomb cannot be legendary because the time between the event (circa 30 CE) and its being recorded in Mark's Gospel (circa 60-70 CE)is too short. But is 30-40 years really too short a time for legend to develop? I don't think so. We have an example of such a development in the 20th century.

Richard Carrier, in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (eds. Robert M. Price and Jeffrey Jay Lowder, Prometheus, 2005, pp. 174-176), discusses the rise of the Roswell alien spacecraft legend. He writes:
There are still people today who believe that in 1947 an alien craft crashed and was recovered, along with alien bodies, by the United States government, and that this was subsequently covered up and kept secret. Though the "core story" of a saucer crash arose immediately in 1947, the elaborations began to appear as early as 1978, when an eyewitness, Maj. Jesse Marcel, described the recovery of the spacecraft in an interview. He never recanted his story, and since then the legend has grown enormously, with numerous devoted believers. This represents a clear case of a legendary development only thirty years after the fact, with all the subsequent additions to the legend (alien bodies, government threats against witnesses, storage of the craft on a military base in Arizona, physics-defying pieces of debris, and so on) arising less than fifty years after the fact, less than twenty years after the first legendary development. Even though modern literacy, skepticism, and technology have made it possible to expose this legend with copious evidence, thousands still believe it.

Imagine if a promise of eternal life to a miserably oppressed and suffering underclass had been attached to this story, along with promises of a perfectly vicious revenge on their enemies and oppressors. Imagine that an army of the most fanatic of those who believe the story actively promoted this creed, seeing every attempt to stop them as part of the government's conspiracy, confident that their own suffering and death would be rewarded and their torturers and murderers duly punished in the end. Imagine that like many Pentecostals today, these people could "prove" their doctrine's truth by performing miraculous healings and handling of snakes, and adducing scriptures that support them. With only a little luck, could such a religion really fail to triumph?

The analogy here with the empty tomb story is strong. It turns out that the genuine historical core is that a weather balloon carrying top secret nuclear-detonation detectors (actually modified sonar buoys) fell from the sky over Roswell, was recovered by an unknowing crew involving Marcel, and really was subsequently covered up by the Air Force. Yet this historical core was obliterated within a small group of believers and entirely replaced by the legend of an alien spacecraft. If their oral tradition had just happened to be the only one to survive in print, then we would have virtually no way at all to debunk this myth--we would not even know whether it was a myth.

The only reason we know the truth in this case is because our society provides enormous resources to an investigator: huge amounts of government records accessible to anyone, a national mass media system, skeptical organizations dedicated to hunting down and publishing testimony and evidence, plus books, libraries, newspapers, universal literacy, and so on. None of this was available in antiquity. Yet even if it were we could still expect the Roswell story to flourish among many people, just as it has done today. And if such a corruption of historical tradition, the replacement of a genuine historical core with an elaborate legend, can arise in so short a time, and be believed by so many, on little more than hearsay and speculation, becoming transformed by believers into "historical fact," then certainly the same thing could have happened to the empty tomb story.

I think the Roswell legend is an excellent analogy. There was 31 years between the time of the event (1947) and the first legendary embellishment (1978). Since 1978, the legend has grown to enormous proportions. If Mark was written circa 60 CE, that would be about 30 years from the time of the death of Jesus (circa 30 CE). So if the Roswell story can be embellished in less than 30 years in modern times, why couldn't the story of Jesus be embellished in ancient times? It would have been much easier for the story to take on legendary elements in ancient times. Again to cite Carrier,
How would a myth be exploded in antiquity? They had no newspapers, telephones, photographs, or access to public documents to consult to check a story. There were no reporters, coroners, forensic scientists, or even detectives. If someone was not a witness, all people had was a man's word, and they would most likely base their judgment not on anything we would call evidence, but on the display of sincerity by the storyteller, by his ability to persuade, and impress them with a show, by the potential rewards his story had to offer, and by its "sounding right" to them. (Ibid., p. 172).

To one who is not already committed to believing (faith)in the divine inspiration of the Bible, it seems to be obvious that the Gospel account has the characteristics of a legend.


  1. Why wouldn't we expect legendary embellishment to have happened even earlier in ancient times than today? Legendary embellishment beginning in 30 years in modern time, with much more immediate long-distance communication, TV, radio, newspapers, cars, ability and time to travel and investigate etc., and needless to say an overall less superstitious populous would seem to argue for the potential for ancient embellishment in far less time.

    Most of the objection to ancient legendary embellishment beginning a "mere" 30-40 years after the fact are most often on the basis of the scene still being fresh and that anyone could go check it out. Even in modern times with a great deal of data at our disposal few bother to ever check out incredible claims before just repeating it (look at the forwarded crap in my inbox), so why should most ancients investigate anything?

    This "legend couldn't have started so early" argument has always been to me one of the most inane, vacuous arguments to have ever been dreamed up, and it is truly a palm-face moment every time the likes of Dr. Craig and his colleagues put it forth.

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  2. Considering the fact that I think Roswell actually happened, I will not be using it as an analogy, LOL!

  3. I just now checked in on this blog after a long absence, so hope to also soon look at what I've missed recently.

    But as to this post, I have a concern about attempts to find a modern analogy of legend-creation, and particularly this attempt. While there might be some surface similarities, the differences are much greater, and so much so that I think the analogy is more problematic and distracting than helpful.

    It seems to me the issues get too simplified or reduced-down to use a concept like "legend creation" unless in a fairly broad context. That context is primarily one, to me, of literary composition, sociology/psychology of religion in the ANE, and history of the development of religion in general. One cannot effectively consider "legend" or even the broader "myth" (as in mythos, not just fictional stories, per se), without considering this broader context. Here, fortunately the NT itself provides quite a few clues. However, the Gospels and other NT books have to be read more individually/comparatively (or by author groupings) than they currently are by most Christians, without confusing "harmonizing," for this to be helpful. Plus Luke (esp. Acts) purposely confuses with his significant spin.

    I've just gotten part way thru "The Existential Jesus" by John Carroll. It seems a good example of a literary analysis approach (and a fascinating read so far).

    In my fairly broad exposure to Jesus and Christian origins material, both scholarly and popular, it seems to me the aspect of literary analysis and the context of religious literature of the time is way, WAY underdeveloped and under-emphasized and that this is an area we all should "reward" with our reading behavior and should encourage the further development of. (And with it stronger interdisciplinary efforts.)


  4. Ken,

    The application of A.N. Sherwin-White's comments to Christian apologetics is pretty messy in my opinion. In the appendix of my book -- Doubting Jesus' Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box? -- I address that convention of historical inquiry that is often used by Christian apologist's from S-W's treatise. It reads:

    “...even two generations [60-70 years] are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historical core of the oral tradition.” (Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, pg. 190)

    However, a question was posed to Sherwin-White at the time by a just as prominent classical historian from the same university, Peter Brunt. Brunt’s question appears to have come after the (1961) lecture series ended because Sherwin-White only addresses it in a footnote appended to the very end of the 1963 written record of his lecture series. Sherwin-White’s footnote reads:

    "Mr. P.A. Brunt has suggested in private correspondence that a study of the Alexander sources is less encouraging for my thesis. There was a remarkable growth of myth around his person and deeds within the lifetime of contemporaries, and the historical embroidery was often deliberate. But the hard core still remains, and an alternative but neglected source – or pair of sources – survived for the serious inquirer Arrian to utilize in the second century A.D. This seems to me encouraging rather than the reverse." (footnote 2, pg. 192-193)

    Sherwin-White is saying here that in fact myth CAN develop very rapidly ("there was a remarkable growth of myth around his person and deeds within the lifetime of contemporaries") and determining the historical core from the legendized records of Alexander the Great would have proven very difficult or impossible if not for the survival of a less legendized source (or pair of sources) to guide the later historian. Sherwin-White is correct to say that his convention of historical inquiry still holds true in this case, but its meaning is different than what many people may initially think. Given Sherwin-White’s response above, his convention of historical inquiry is really this:

    "When in some quarters the mythical tendency DOES prevail over the hard historical core of the oral tradition in the first two generations, there will ALWAYS survive another less legendized source or sources to guide the later historian."

    This I think gets to the heart of the matter. Who would have written an unbiased or only slightly legendized account of Jesus’ life? Unlike Alexander the Great, who was the king of Macedon, and everyone else that Sherwin-White uses for comparison in his book -– Pisistratus (tyrant of Athens), Hipparchus (tyrant of Athens after Pisistratus), Gaius Gracchus (politician), Tiberius Caesar (Emperor), Cleomenes (King), Themistocles (military commander), and all 46 people in Plutarch’s Lives (every single one being a statesman, general, king, emperor, lawmaker, politician, tyrant, or consul) –- Jesus was not a figure of contemporary significance when he was alive or to anyone but his worshippers for a century or two after his death. Because of this, it seems entirely plausible that we could be dealt only highly legendized pieces of literature. In short, I think Sherwin-White is simply mistaken; less legendized sources may not always exist for the later historian to look at.

    I hope this helps some.

    Kris K.

  5. Kris,

    Excellent comments. I appreciate the information.

  6. Ken,

    I am sorry but this is weak.

    The legend must've developed prior to I Corinthians 15 account, writtend 50 AD. Furhter the creed was circulated 2/3 years after the event.

    1. How did you arrive at these dates? Guessing?

  7. John,

    All the creed says is that some guys had some visions. The rest of it could still be legendary.

  8. sorry? The creed lists the facts of christianity. And it developed within 2 to 3 years. The time is very small.

  9. John,

    As Vinny pointed out the "creed" of 1 Cor. 15 simply says that Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and rose again, and appeared to . . ."

    It doesn't give the details of the burial nor the details of the appearances. These details were filled in later, I believe, as legendary embellishments.

    I don't deny that some disciples had visions of Jesus very early and came to believe that Jesus death was for sin and that he rose from the dead but that is not the same as believing that all of the details recorded in the gospels literally happened.

    Just as some people saw something fall from the sky in 1947 but as the story developed all kinds of additional details got added.

    1. As Vinny pointed out the "creed" of 1 Cor. 15 simply says that Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and rose again, and appeared to . . ."

      It doesn't give the details of the burial nor the details of the appearances. These details were filled in later, I believe, as legendary embellishments.

      I don't deny that some disciples had visions of Jesus very early and came to believe that Jesus death was for sin and that he rose from the dead but that is not the same as believing that all of the details recorded in the gospels literally happened.

      Just as some people saw something fall from the sky in 1947 but as the story developed all kinds of additional details got added.

      Dude, you really do need to get all the facts about the creed, Here is somestuff.....
      Exegetical evidence for recognizing 1 Cor. 15:3-8 as a creed
      "That this confession is an early Christian, pre-Pauline creed is recognized by virtually all critical scholars across a very wide theological spectrum."[1] Some of the reasons given for holding this view are that, first, Paul introduces it as information with which his original audience was already familiar. Second, Paul describes this creed as that which he himself had received (paralambanein) and delivered (paradidonai). These are technical rabbinical terms employed in reference to the passing on of oral tradition.[2] Third, the language is organized stylistically, which is a mnemonic device used in order to facilitate memorization. This is demonstrated by the repetition of phrases such as, "and that" and "according to the Scriptures."[3] Fourth, the language is decidedly non-Pauline, which demonstrates that it probably did not originate with Paul. Non-Pauline phrases include "according to the Scriptures" (kata tas grafas, whereas Paul’s statement to this effect is always kathos gegraptai), as well as "for our sins," "he has been raised," "the third day," "he was seen," etc.[4] Fourth, this passage appears to have been translated into Greek from an Aramaic original, as evidenced by the fact that many of the non-Pauline phrases mentioned above are Semitic in character, as is the parallelism, and the use of Peter’s Aramaic name, Cephas.[5] "These [and other] considerations have persuaded virtually all New Testament scholars that vs. 3-7 do contain a pre-Pauline formula."[6]

    2. Laymylifedown,

      Your argument at most demonstrates that the information arose from an earlier source. But the means by which it came from the source is not made clear by your analysis/argument. It could still have been embellished between the original source and Paul. Without a detailed record of the means of information transfer, your argument doesn't get you to the conclusion you want it to, which is that the information in Paul's letter is more reliable than it would be if the original attestation were 20 years after the supposed events purportedly occurred.

  10. Paul said Jesus "rose on the third day according to the scriptures" because "the scriptures" said so. His "visions" were probably dreams he believed because he wanted to believe.

    We know that at least some first-generation Christians were willing to do almost whatever it takes to be persuasive, evidenced by for instance passages such as 1 Peter 3:15. 20 years of Christians desperately trying to figure out how to be convincing elapsed between 1 Corinthians and the Gospels. Who wouldn't expect colossal levels of embellishment in this situation?

  11. The only problem is that 1 corintios 15 is the eary atestation on Jesus!