Not Enough Time for Gospels to Have Become Legends
Should the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life (i.e. Gospels) be regarded as mere legendary accounts that were built up over time? New Testament scholar, Dr. William Lane Craig, notes that many biblical scholars take the “guilty until proven innocent” approach; that is, they regard the Gospels as mere legends until they are proven historical. However, Craig rejects this approach and one reason for this stems from the work of the historian, A.N. Sherwin-White. Sherwin-White notes that there simply wasn’t enough time for legends to have developed. One can see this by observing the development of legends around Alexander the Great who lived several centuries before Jesus. Craig notes that many skeptical critics fail to appreciate Sherwin-White's point.
One of the major problems with the legend hypothesis, however, which is almost never addressed by skeptical critics, is that the time gap between Jesus’ death and the writing of the gospels is just too short for this to have happened.
This point has been well explained by A. N. Sherwin-White in his book Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. Professor Sherwin-White is not a theologian; he’s a professional Greco-Roman historian of times prior to and contemporaneous with Jesus. According to Sherwin-White, the sources for Roman and Greek history are usually biased and removed one or two generations or even centuries from the events they record. Yet, he says, historians reconstruct with confidence the course of Roman and Greek history. For example, the two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written by Arrian and Plutarch more than four hundred years after Alexander’s death, and yet classical historians still consider them to be trustworthy. The fabulous legends about Alexander the Great did not develop until the centuries after these two writers. According to Sherwin-White, the writings of Herodotus enable us to determine the rate at which legend accumulates, 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.
As a professional historian, Sherwin-White finds the skepticism of many New Testament scholars to be unjustified. Given the widespread agreement amongst historians that the Gospel accounts were written down and circulated while the eyewitnesses were still alive, Sherwin-White believes the legendary hypothesis lacks credibility.
William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, Kindle ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2010), 3077–93, 3103.