The Reliability of the Gospels
Peter J. Williams examines the evidence in his new book
“Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence,” argues the atheist Richard Dawkins. “Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.”
Like many of Dawkins’ quips, this one is catchy but inaccurate. Christians do not define faith that way. As Peter J. Williams notes in the Introduction to Can We Trust the Gospels?: “Coming from the Latin word fides, the word faith used to mean something closer to our word trust. Trust, of course, can be based on evidence.” Williams goes on to draw several lines of evidence that point to the Gospels’ historical reliability. It is written as an introductory text for a broad audience.
Those lines of evidence include what early non-Christian sources reveal about Jesus Christ and His followers (chapter 1), the sources and dates of the Gospels (chapter 2), accurate names for places and people (chapter 3), undesigned coincidences between the Gospels (chapter 4), the reliability of oral transmission of Jesus’ teachings (chapter 5), the reliability of textual transmission of the Gospels (chapter 6), how to account for apparent contradictions (chapter 7), and evidence for miracles (chapter 8).
“Trust, of course, can be based on evidence.” — Peter J. Williams
In my opinion, chapter 3 — titled, “Did the Gospel Authors Know Their Stuff?” — is the strongest chapter. It argues that the evangelists “display familiarity with the time and places they wrote about” in terms of geography, personal names and other first-century details.
Take personal names, for example. Williams writes: “A series of scholarly studies has shown that, though Jews were located in many places in the Roman Empire, the different locations had rather distinct naming patterns, and the popularity of various names among Jews outside Palestine bore little relationship to those inside Palestine.” The statistical distribution of personal names in the Gospels tracks with the distribution of names in Palestine, but not outside of it. This suggests that the names reflect historical people, because “someone living in another part of the Roman Empire would not simply be able to think of Jewish names familiar to him and put them into a story.”
The weakest chapter is chapter 7, “What about Contradictions?” Williams identifies six formal contradictions within the Gospel of John and argues that the evangelist has recorded “contradictions at the superficial level of language to encourage the audiences to think more deeply” [emphasis added]. In other words, John’s Gospel teaches dialectically. That’s a reasonable explanation.
Williams doesn’t address other kinds of apparent contradictions between the Gospels, however, such as whether Jesus was born while Herod the Great was still alive (Matthew 2:3) or when Caesar Augustus’ worldwide census was taken (Luke 2:1–2). Herod died in 4 B.C. The census occurred in A.D. 6. It is this kind of apparent contradiction between the Gospels that vexes readers more than John’s “deliberate formal contradictions.” I believe that there are ways to resolve such apparent contradictions, but Williams doesn’t mention them.
One other quibble. There is evidence within the New Testament that Jesus spoke Aramaic (e.g., Mark 5:41; 7:34). The Gospels themselves are written in Greek, however. Williams argues that it’s possible Jesus spoke Greek as well. I don’t discount that possibility. What Williams doesn’t mention is the possibility that Jesus spoke Hebrew. Obviously, Jesus read Hebrew, the language of Scripture (e.g., Luke 4:16–17). The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls revealed that Hebrew was used in everyday conversation, not just religious discourse. Thus, Jesus could have spoken Hebrew as well.
This might explain something about Jesus’ use of parables. The most characteristic form of Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptic Gospels is the parable. “Though Jewish sources often attribute parables to rabbis,” writes Williams, “there are few parables in the Old Testament or Dead Sea Scrolls and none in the Apocrypha, and few are used by early Christians outside the New Testament.” What Williams doesn’t mention is that those rabbinic parables were told in Hebrew. Even when quoted in an Aramaic text such as the Talmud, the parable itself appeared in Hebrew.
If rabbis told parables in Hebrew, and if Jesus taught in parables, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Jesus might also have taught parables in Hebrew. It seems to me that this line of thought could strengthen the Gospels’ reliability by linking Jesus’ form of teaching to a form of rabbinic teaching common in Second Temple Judaism.
An introductory text such as Can We Trust the Gospels? can’t get too far into the weeds of scholarly argument, however. Despite my negative comments, I think Williams’ treatment of the issues on the whole is helpful and worth recommending to a general readership. Readers interested in a deeper treatment of the subject can read the works Williams cites in the footnotes.
Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).