How do we know that Jesus said what the Gospels in the New Testament say he said? Weren’t those books really written long after the first century AD in any case? And what about mistakes or changes that were made during all those centuries before photocopying?
Answering these questions is a part of the purpose of Peter Williams’s book Can We Trust the Gospels? In eight chapters, Williams answers these eight questions:
- What do non-Christians sources say?
- What are the four Gospels?
- Did the Gospel authors know their stuff?
- [Are there] Undesigned coincidences[?]
- Do we have Jesus’ actual words?
- Has the text changed?
- What about contradictions?
- Who would make all this up?
This isn’t the only book written on the subject. Or that tackles these questions. F.F. Bruce’s classic work The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? takes on these questions for the whole New Testament, while Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses gives a scholarly version of Can We Trust the Gospels? This book by Williams aims right between these two older works, engaging a popular audience while focusing only on the Gospels rather than on the whole New Testament.
It is no surprise that the conclusion Williams comes to is that the Gospels as we have them are the documents that were written by the first century authors. He repeatedly says that his purpose here isn’t to comment on the truth of their substance–though he also repeatedly says that it is unlikely that they are lying given how tightly and coherently the Gospel narratives hold together.
This is an important point. Yes, Christianity is a religion that requires faith. We believe that the Gospel is true not because historical and scientific evidence is laid out before us irrefutably, but because God has saved us by the power of His Spirit in bringing us to repent and believe in the Good News. And yet, ‘faith’ is not contrary to ‘reason.’ There are good reasons to believe the narrative of Scripture, and we should learn and be able to defend those reasons before the watching world. Can We Trust the Gospels? Is a useful place to begin learning such a defense.
Recommended for people interested in apologetics and introductory questions about textual transmission.