History, Legend, or Myth?

One of my favorite movies in recent time is The Fellowship of the Ring. This adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic, The Lord of the Rings, is by far the best of the cinematic series. The filmmakers introduce us to Tokien’s Middle Earth with a brief history of Sauron’s One Ring. When the ring was lost and forgotten, the prologue’s voice-over says, “History became legend. Legend became myth.” Tolkien shows a keen understanding of human nature in this statement. When 2,000 years or more separate the contemporary from purported events, it is easy to either embellish what history reports or to believe that it has been tainted by embellishment. However, Tolkien implies that at the heart of what is widely considered myth, there is a core — or more than a core — of truth. Perhaps, he suggests, the mythical is more factual than we once considered.

To be sure, humanity does tend toward embellishment as the years between the present and the past multiply. But does that tendency make all ancient testimony inherently untrustworthy? Classical historian A.N. Sherwin White offered this assessment:

Certainly a deal of distortion can affect a story that is given literary form a generation or two after the event, whether for national glorification or political spite, or for the didactic or symbolic exposition of ideas. But in the material of ancient history the historical content is not hopelessly lost…even two generations are too short a time span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historical core of the oral tradition.

Professor White argues that embellishment is a relatively slow process that creeps into the historical record within a generation or two. However, this does not prevent the historian from discovering the “hard historical core of the oral tradition.” As an example, he considers a well-documented contemporary of Jesus, Tiberius Caesar:

The story of his reign is known from four sources, the Annals of Tacitus and the biography of Suetonius, written some eight or ninety years later, the brief contemporary record of Velleius Paterculus, and the third century history of Cassius Dio. These disagree amongst themselves in the wildest possible fashion, both in major matters of political action or motive and in specific details of minor events. Everyone would admit that Tacitus is the best of all the sources, and yet no serious modern historian would accept at face value the majority of the statements of Tacitus about the motives of Tiberius. But this does not prevent the belief that the material of Tacitus can be used to write a history of Tiberius.

Let’s take a moment to digest Professor White’s argument. Historians use four contradictory sources to detail the reign of Tiberius Caesar. Tacitus is the best among them but some of his material is questionable. Despite the inconsistencies and imperfections, historians have generally believed that facts about his reign can be ascertained. In other words, what is speculative, legendary, or outright false can be discerned from a careful investigation of the texts in question.

The first five books of the New Testament claim to record real events taking place in real locations and happening to real people. Many people — including some with faith in God — believe that legends crept into these texts thus obscuring what we know about the life and times of Jesus. How then can we know the “real Jesus?” Based on what Professor White says, we should look to the earliest material available when embellishment was least likely to taint the historical core. Do we have first or second generation witnesses to the life of Jesus? I’ll consider that in my next post. Until then I’ll ask this: do you think we can know anything about Jesus?