Tuesday, 18 October 2016

How Fast Do Myths Appear?

In Who was Jesus? A Christian Perspective, William Lane Craig makes this claim:

For in order for these stories to be in the main legendary, a very considerable length of time must be available for the evolution and development of the traditions until the historical elements have been supplanted by unhistorical. This factor is typically neglected in New Testament scholarship, as A. N. Sherwin-White points out in Roman Law and Roman Society tn the New Testament. Professor Sherwin-White is not a theologian; he is an eminent historian of Roman and Greek times, roughly contemporaneous with the NT. According to Professor Sherwin-White, the sources for Roman history are usually biased and removed at least one or two generations or even centuries from the events they record. Yet, he says, historians reconstruct with confidence what really happened. He chastises NT critics for not realizing what invaluable sources they have in the gospels. The writings of Herodotus furnish a test case for the rate of legendary accumulation, and the tests show that even two generations is too short a time span to allow legendary tendencies to wipe out the hard core of historical facts. When Professor Sherwin-White turns to the gospels, he states for these to be legends, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be 'unbelievable'; more generations are needed. All NT scholars agree that the gospels were written down and circulated within the first generation, during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses.

Is this a reasonable claim? I thought I would look at four modern myths, and see how rapidly they appeared. I do appreciate that this is not an exact comparison. Life today is obviously different to life back then. However, we need to think carefully about whether those differences would allow myths to form slower or faster. I would suggest that myths would have a harder time getting established in a world with better communication.

Eating carrots improves eyesight

This is a myth that was started deliberately by the British during the war to obscure the fact that RAF pilots could find German planes at night using Radar. It is a myth that got established within the timespan of WW2, very quickly indeed, though obviously the fact that the British government was promoting it will have accelerated it considerably.

Aliens at Roswell

In contrast, this is something the US government denied. Nevertheless, since 1947 a mythology involving a crashed alien spaceship and government officials performing an alien autopsy and using alien technology has flourished. The Roswell myth became big in the eighties and nineties, with various books appearing, the first in 1980, just 33 years after the incident. A autopsy video even appeared in 1995, within 50 years.

I think what is interesting about this one is that there were people there who knew what had happened, and this myth developed anyway. People wanted there to be aliens at Roswell, and so were willing to believe anything that supported that view.

Could the same be said of the early Christians? I think so. They wanted to believe Jesus was an incredible miracle-worker - God-incarnate even - and so were willing to believe pretty much anything that supported that idea.

At Roswell, the eye witnesses were constrained by secrecy agreements and the site was off-limits to the general public. At the resurrection, the eye witnesses were dead or scattered by the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, and the site was too far away (given transport at the time) to make a casual visit possible.


Scientology is a religion created by Ron L Hubbard in 1952, with its own bizarre mythology (so bizarre that - before the internet - you have to be in the religion many years before you were ready to hear about it). From wiki:

Among these advanced teachings is the story of Xenu (sometimes Xemu), introduced as the tyrant ruler of the "Galactic Confederacy". According to this story, 75 million years ago Xenu brought billions of people to Earth in spacecraft resembling Douglas DC-8 airliners, stacked them around volcanoes and detonated hydrogen bombs in the volcanoes. The thetans then clustered together, stuck to the bodies of the living, and continue to do this today. Scientologists at advanced levels place considerable emphasis on isolating body thetans and neutralizing their ill effects.

I do not have figures for scientology membership, but it was significant by the eighties, just thirty years after it began.

Angels of Mons

Early in World War 1, the British had to beat a retreat from Mons in Belgium. Some months later a short work of fiction by Arthur Machen appeared in the Evening News, a London newspaper, describing how mystical bowmen had appeared during the retreat to aid the British.

It was less than a year after that that people were claiming these ghostly bowmen were angels, and that they had actually been there!


Myths can appear fast!

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