So Just What Do Classical Historians Make of the New Testament Documents?

Sometimes disputes about the historical nature of the New Testament documents seems to be a fight between theologians of differing perspectives or between skeptical and apologetic laypersons. While it is true that some of the theologians are also fine historians, you will occasionally see use made of quotes or comments by classicists as kind of trump cards. I myself have relied on conslusions and analysis by leading classical historians Michael Grant, A.N. Sherwin-White and Robin L. Fox.

This interest in what learned historians from a related speciality might make of the New Testament documents caused a recent article to catch my eye. Published in the Tyndale Bulletin, it "looks at some of the ways in which ancient historians ... use Acts and other parts of the New Testament as historical sources, in the same way that they use other ancient sources such as Herodotus, Thucydides, and Tacitus." "What Do Ancient Historians Make of the New Testament," by Alanna Nobbs, TB, 57.2 (2006). This blog makes use of Nobbs' article as well as my own research and reading of these classical historians.

In some cases, classical historians have taken up the pen to write about early Christian topics, such as the historical Jesus or the New Testament.

Michael Grant (1914-2004)

Grant was a highly respected classical historian, "who read classics at Trinity College, Cambridge and was professor of Humanity at Edinburgh University. He was awarded the OBE in 1946, the CBE in 1958, and was vice-chancellor (president) of the Queen's University of Belfast and University of Khartoum."

One of the many books written by Grant was Jesus, An Historian's Review of the Gospels. It is an interesting insight into how a respected classical historian treated the Gospels. While Grant finds reason to doubt details in some of the Gospel narratives, he accepts them as useful historical sources about the historical Jesus. Ibid., page 199-200. He had scorn for the Jesus Myth idea, writing, "if we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus' existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned."

Moreover, some of Grant's conclusions were supportive of Christianity's most important claim. For example, Grant accepts the historicity of the discovery of Jesus' empty tomb: "If we apply the same criteria that we would apply to other ancient literary sources, the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty." Ibid., page 176. Finally, Grant found that much of contemporary Jesus studies was too skeptical of the gospel sources, saying that such scholarship “is too extreme a viewpoint and would not be applied in other fields.” Ibid., page 201.

Robin L. Fox (1946-____)

Fox, perhaps most famous for his book Pagans & Christians, is a Fellow of New College, Oxford, and University Reader in Ancient History. An avowed atheist, Fox wrote a book about the Bible called The Unauthorized Version. Although critical of what he perceives as fundamentalist views of the Bible, Fox reaches some quite conservative conclusions, such as that the Gospel of John was written by an eyewitness and that Luke-Acts was written by a companion of Paul. Indeed, about Luke-Acts, Fox writes:

I regard it as certain, therefore, that he knew Paul and followed parts of his journey. He stayed with him in Jerusalem; he spent time in Caesarea, where he lodged with an early member of the Seven, Philip, who had four prophetic daughters, all virgins (Acts 21:8-9). It must have been quite an evening. He had no written sources, but in Acts he himself was a primary source for a part of the story. He wrote the rest of Acts from what individuals told him and he himself had witnessed, as did Herodotus and Thucydides; in my view, he wrote finally in Rome, where he could still talk to other companions of Paul, people like Aristarchus (a source for Acts 19:23 ff.; cf Acts 27:2, 17:1-15) or perhaps Aquila and Priscilla (whence 18). From Philip he could already have heard about the Ethiopian eunuch (Philip met him), or Stephen and the Seven (Philip was probably one), or the conversion of the Gentile Cornelius in Caesarea (Philip’s residence); from the prophet Agabus, whom he met at 21:10, could come knowledge of Agabus’ earlier prophecy in 11.28.

Ibid., page 210.

It is also fair to say that Fox finds the basic narrative of the Gospels and Luke-Acts to be credible, though in his opinion it is interlaced with dogma and church propaganda.

A.N. Sherwin-White (1911-1993)

Sherwin-White was an imminent Roman historian at Oxford and member of the British Academy. One of his books, Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament, focuses on the earliest Christian documents’ relationship with the broader Roman context. Again and again he finds the New Testament documents to be worthy of a high level of trust. When it comes to Acts, for example, Sherwin-White states, "For Acts the confirmation of history is overwhelming" and that "any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted." Ibid., page 189.

As to the gospels, Sherwin-White determined that it is unlikely that the Gospels were predominantly legendary, though he does think they must be read as written with agendas and for polemical purposes:

The agnostic type of form-criticism would be much more credible if the compilation of the Gospels were much later in time.... Herodotus enables us to test the tempo of myth-making, [showing that] even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core.

Ibid., pages 189-190.

As with Grant, Sherwin-White found contemporary biblical studies to be unduly skeptical:

So, it is astonishing that while Greco-Roman historians have been growing in confidence, the twentieth-century study of the Gospel narratives, starting from no less promising material, has taken so gloomy a turn in the development of form-criticism... that the historical Christ is unknowable and the history of his mission cannot be written. This seems very curious.

Ibid., page 187.

Sherwin-White’s statements about most classicists having faith in the New Testament documents receives further support from the reviews of his own book and by the works of other classicists.

For example, John Crook reviewed Roman Society and Roman Laws for Classical Review and agreed that Acts is “an historical source talking about exactly the same world as Tacitus and Suetonius.” He thought that Sherwin-White’s work “support the authenticity in detail of Acts.” Classical Review 14 (1964): 198-200. Another reviewer, J. J. Nicholls, agreed with Sherwin-White that the Gospels and Acts “are to be treated as equally serious and valuable evidence” as other ancient historians, such as Herodotus, Thucydides, and Tacitus. Journal of Religious History (1964): 92-95. According to Nobbs, other leading classicists--publishing in the Journal of Roman Studies and Classical Weekly--found Sherwin-White’s book a welcome and sober historical inquiry that was a corrective of the work of more skeptical theologians. Ibid., pages 286-97.

Nobbs’ helpful article goes on to discuss other examples of classical historians making use of the New Testament documents as sources to further classical research. First, A.H.M. Jones (1904-1970) was a prominent 20th century historian of classical antiquity and one-time chair of Ancient History at University College, London. In his Studies in Roman Government and Law, he uses Acts as a source when discussing a Roman citizen’s right of appeal to Caesar. Second, Fergus Millar, Camden Chair of Ancient History at the Univ. of Oxford (only recently retired), “likewise integrated (though again never uncritically) Acts and other Graeco-Roman evidence in a variety of contexts.” Ibid. page 288. The most notable such use was in The Emperor in Roman World (31 BC-AD 337). Third, Stephen Mitchell’s book examining the geography and history of Anatolia draws on Acts and Galatians as basic historical sources.

Based on these examples, it appears that classical historians may give greater weight to the New Testament documents than many New Testament scholars. Because the time period under study by most classicists is so much greater than that covered by the New Testament, few classicists focus on its documents. However, when they do – such as in the case of Sherwin-White and Fox – they can come to more conservative positions about authorship and historical value than even many moderate New Testament scholars.


unkle e said…
This is very helpful information, and I'm sorry I came across it so long after you wrote it. I have read Grant's book and found it very helpful.

But all these authors and books are now a little old. I know that this field doesn't change by the hour, but I would guess that sceptics might argue that the writers are out-of-date.

Have you any contemporary classicists expressing similar views?

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