In Can We Trust the Gospels?, Peter J. Williams, Principal at Tyndale House, Cambridge, doesn’t aim to prove that the gospels are true. He wants to show rather that “they can be rationally trusted” (120). If successful, this demonstration is a big deal, as Williams says on the closing page (140). But his aims are rather modest.
I admit that I started out with a hearty Yes to the title question. But I think any careful reader will find Williams’s arguments powerful, if not utterly compelling. Here I record a few of his conclusions and sum up a few lines of argument.
1) Williams compares the amount of material available in the gospels to the amount of ancient material on Tiberius, the Roman emperor during Jesus’ ministry. The only contemporary account of Tiberius comes from Velleius Paterculus, but he “was a propagandist for Tiberius, composing flattery, perhaps under the patronage of Tiberius” (41). His testimony is suspect. Besides, the various biographies of Tiberius include a great deal of material about his reign, material that does not deal with Tiberius directly. By contrast, the gospels are almost entirely about Jesus.
Williams concludes that “Jesus has more extended text about him, in generally closer proximity to his life, than his contemporary Tiberius, the most famous person in the then-known world” (41).
2) After reviewing the deep Jewishness of the gospels, he concludes: “the four gospels are so influenced by Judaism in their outlook, subject matter, and detail that it would be reasonable to date them considerably before the Jewish War” (81). He doesn’t affirm that they were written that early, but the fact that they are Jewish texts in a church that rapidly lost contact with these Jewish roots suggests that they were written early, within decades of the events themselves.
3) So, lots of text, written soon after the fact. Did the writers know their stuff? Williams shows that the evangelists were well-informed about the landscape, topography, and settlements of Palestine. He lists all the towns, regions, bodies of water, and other places mentioned in the gospels (52-54). Some of the towns are well-known, others virtually unknown, apart from residents of Judea. Each of the evangelists includes some unique places, and so none is completely dependent on others (54). Local knowledge of this sort would be extremely hard to come by from reading or mere hearsay; it’s more likely the result of personal exposure or “detailed hearing” (55). A resident of Judea could have made it all up, using his knowledge of the landscape. Not someone from elsewhere.
Williams’s test cases are the apocryphal gospels: “The Gospel of Thomas mentions Judaea once, but names no other location. The Gospel of Judas names no locations” (61). These later texts “show that sometimes people wrote about Jesus without close knowledge of what he did” (63).
4) The evangelists’ use of personal names leads to a similar conclusion. The gospels include people with popular Palestinian Jewish names (Simon, Joseph, Judah, Joshua) and some uncommon names (Andrew, Bartholomew, Thomas). Few of the popular names among Egyptian Jews (Eleazar, Sabbataius, Joseph, Dositheus, Pappus are the five most popular, 66) shows up. If the gospels are fictional, they are works of genius – of four geniuses, who all, somewhat independently, reflect the distribution of names that one would expect to find in Palestine.
Disambiguation of names provides a fascinating side line of evidence. Simon was a popular name, and so the evangelists often add an identifying moniker – “called Peter,” “the leper,” “the Zealot” (67). Williams notes that the writers tend to disambiguate in reported speech, but not in narration. That is, when a character speaks of “Jesus” (a popular name), he or she identifies him as “the prophet of Nazareth” or somesuch. The authors don’t add the identifier; they simply call Jesus “Jesus,” since by the time they wrote he was clearly identifiable (73-75).
Apocryphal gospels again provide a nice control group. The Gospel of Thomas includes only seven names; the Gospel of Judas has only two recognizable Palestinian Jewish names – Judas and Jesus – while peopling the story with people bearing “names from the Greek Bible and contemporary mysticism” (69).
If the evangelists were making up all these names, they were far, far better at it than their apocryphal competitors. The simplest explanation is that the “authors were able to give an authentic pattern of names in their narrative because they were reliably reporting what people were actually called” (77).
5) Williams devotes a chapter to the textual tradition, a topic on which he has spent considerable energy. His argument for the reliability of textual transmission begins with the 1516 New Testament of Erasmus, constructed from the two texts he had available to him, both from the twelfth century. Five centuries have now passed, and “a couple of thousand Greek manuscripts of the Gospels have been discovered or identified” (113).
Yet, there are remarkably few major differences between Erasmus’s text and very recent editions. Erasmus was already aware of the largest disputed chunks (Mark 16 and John 7:53-8:11) and was also aware of a few other disputed passages. He knew 77% of the uncertain verses. When his edition is compared to the recently-discovered manuscripts, though, the differences are small. With two late manuscripts, Erasmus “was able to produce an edition of the Gospels that represented them essentially as they were over a thousand years before his time” (116). Erasmus couldn’t have known that; we do. He illustrates by comparing the prologue of John in five editions of the New Testament from Erasmus to 2017: in “a sequence of 188 words or 812 letters, we find no differences in these editions” (119).
Williams admits that this evidence can always be set aside. One can always imagine an ingenious plot stretching from the first to the twenty-first century, involving conspiratorial evangelists, copyists, and modern scholars. A starting plot for a Dan Brown novel. Not likely as history.