Strong evidence that the New Testament is true
Review of Can We Trust the Gospels? by Peter Williams
(UK), Crossway, 2018
Pages: 153, including topic and Scripture indices, and footnotes at the bottom of pages
Dimensions: 5.25 × 0.41 × 8 inches
A great short but informative book defending the reliability of the Gospels. Can We Trust the Gospels? is written in a readable style, and is loaded with helpful charts and tables. Thus, we can trust the content and believe in the One whom the Gospels talk about.
The Gospel authors clearly knew much about local customs, place names, and personal names. This is not surprising if the writers were close in time and place to the events, but impossible if they wrote long after and from a distant location. The different authors record many incidental details that inadvertently corroborate each others’ accuracy.
Jesus’ sayings were just the type to be memorized accurately. They also reflected what an early 1st-century Jew would find important, while issues that were very important to the later church were absent. His parables and titles differed greatly from later Christian writings, refuting claims that the early church put sayings into His mouth. With personal experience in producing a Greek edition of the NT, the author shows that the current text is virtually unchanged from the originals.
The book concludes that the simplest explanation for the reliability of the text, and the rapid growth of Christianity, is that it tells the truth. Jesus of Nazareth really was who He claimed to be and rose from the dead. As He came to save the world, our most logical response is to obey His command to “Follow Me.”
Pete Williams used to be an OT specialist and wrote a few articles for our Journal of Creation. He has now moved into NT studies and is Chair of the International Greek New Testament Project and Member of the Translation Committee of the English Standard Version of the Bible. His current affiliation is Principle of Tyndale House, Cambridge, UK.
CMI’s mission is the authority of Scripture; young-earth creation is a corollary. We have to show that the current Bible books really are the Word of God (see right). But Can We Trust the Gospels? has a wealth of further evidence, in a concise and readable form, showing that the NT books are very reliable. Thus the book adds important information to our repertoire.
1. What do non-Christian sources say?
Williams documents that the Christian-hating Latin authors Tacitus (c. AD 56–c. 120) and Pliny (61–c. 113) inadvertently confirm details of the NT. They also confirm that Christianity spread remarkably quickly. For example, Tacitus dates Jesus’ crucifixion to the reign of Pontius Pilate in the 30s ad, but there were vast numbers of Christians in Rome by the time of the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64. This is a short time frame for Christianity to spread a huge distance (Rome is about 2,300 km (1430 mi) from Jerusalem—further than Havana is from New York City and Edinburgh from north Morocco).
Pliny notes that Christianity had spread to cities, villages, and the countryside in his domain. But he admitted that their only ‘crime’ was sing “hymns to Christ as to a God”, while proof that someone was NOT a Christian was to worship a pagan god. Thus belief in the divinity of Christ was both early and widespread. Pliny’s major concerns were desertion of pagan temples and loss of demand for their sacrificial animals. This parallels the silversmith riots in Ephesus further south when no one would buy their idols (Acts 19).
The Jewish historian Josephus (c. 37–c. 100) notes that the Jewish priests executed James, the brother of Jesus “called Messiah”. Josephus clearly didn’t believe this claim about Jesus, but this admitted that the claim was widely known and that Jesus’ family members were prepared to die for the claim.
2.What are the Gospels?
Williams cites famous non-Christian scholars like Bart Ehrman who admit that the four Gospels are by far the earliest and best sources for the life of Jesus. Thus the choice was not the result of Church politics but simply widespread knowledge among Christians that these were the most authentic course.
Four books on one person is a lot of information by the standards of the Roman world. Jesus spent all His life in a backwater of the Roman Empire, but there is as much information on Him as on His contemporary, Emperor Tiberius. Furthermore, the Gospels were written in the time of those who knew Him, and the earliest extant manuscripts are only a century after He lived. As CMI has documented, there are “over 5,800 manuscripts of the New Testament in the original Greek, there are about 10,000 manuscripts of Latin translation, and 5,000–10,000 translated into other languages like Coptic and Aramaic.” Conversely, the information on Tiberius was written 80 or more years after he lived. The earliest manuscripts are centuries after the events, and there are far fewer.
3. Did the Gospel authors know their stuff?
Williams provides a wealth of information about the geography, personal names, financial knowledge, and Jewishness of the Gospels. For instance, the Gospels refer to many towns, regions, and bodies of water in a natural manner, just as we would expect from people familiar with Israel/Palestine before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. They didn’t have access to the Internet or even contemporary written records that would provide this information. The counterfeit gospels like Thomas, written much later, show very little knowledge of the area.
The personal names also match the known name frequency of the time and place. So does the way the people are talked about. For rare names, the person with that name was probably the only one people would know, so no further explanation was needed. But for the common names, the writers needed to explain which one. E.g., common male names were Simon and Judas (= Jude = Judah), so the Gospels specify Simon Peter, Simon the Zealot, Judas Iscariot, and the Judas who was not Iscariot. Mary was the commonest female name, hence Mary mother of Jesus, Mary of Magdala (Magdalene), Mary sister of Martha. But people with the rare names of Thomas, Bartholomew, and Philip did not need disambiguators.
The Gospels also reported speech about people naturally. Jesus was another common name. But the Gospels were all about Him, so they didn’t need to specify which Jesus. But when the Gospels reported people talking about Him, they had to specify which “Jesus”. Pilate (like Josephus above) asks the crowd about Jesus “called Christ”. A servant girl accuses Peter of being a companion of Jesus the Galilean / Nazarene. A crowd says this Jesus was “the son of the carpenter”. Similarly, Matthew’s Gospel uses “John”, another common name, mainly to mean John the Baptist. But Matthew still records Herod and his stepdaughters explicitly referring to John the Baptist with the disambiguator.
But many years later, Jesus was so famous that it was no longer necessary to explain which Jesus. So the naming pattern fits the 1st century, not later ones. This applies to both famous heroes and famous villains. Dr Willams develops an analogy with the name Adolf. Suppose I mentioned “Adolf” in c. 1900. Did I mean Adolf Anderssen the great chessmaster, Adolf von Baeyer the great chemist, or any number of other people? But after about 1939, we would know perfectly well which “Adolf” was meant.
4. Undesigned coincidences
The Gospels corroborate each other very well. But if they were identical, skeptics might accuse them of collusion. Different emphases of each writer can explain many differences. But some of the differences inadvertently affirm accurate reporting. This is what Dr Williams calls “undesigned coincidences”, following Dr Lydia McGrew, herself following 19th century apologist J.J. Blunt (and 18th-century apologist William Paley of ‘watchmaker’ fame).
For example, the Gospels records Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. Luke records Martha busy serving, frustrated with Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet (Luke 10:38–42). John records Martha rushing to meet Jesus while Mary stayed home (John 11:20) and records Mary weeping (John 11:32–33), but Martha warning Jesus that the tomb would stink (John 11:39). These are very different emphases, but both paint a consistent picture of Martha as a woman of action and practicality and Mary as a contemplative thinker.
Mark records Jesus calling James and John “sons of thunder” without explanation (Mark 3:17). Luke doesn’t mention the nickname but records James and John asking Jesus if they should call lightning down from heaven (Luke 9:54). This makes sense of the nickname in the other Gospel.
There are many undesigned coincidences in the accounts of the Feeding of the 5,000. For instance, Mark says that the grass was green (Mark 6:39) and that Jesus moved to a remote location to escape the crowds (Mark 6:31). John’s Gospel relays that it was close to Passover. Lush, green grass would be expected around Passover (John 6:4), near the end of the rainy season. This time would also be when people travelled and city populations swelled, hence the crowds. John, writing much later, inadvertently clarifies why Mark’s report was accurate.
John also records that Jesus asked Philip where to get food (John 6:5–7). Why this relatively obscure disciple? John had previously said Philip was from Bethsaida (John 1:44), but so what? Luke provides the answer when he, not John, reports that the feeding was near Bethsaida (Luke 9:10). The combination makes sense: Jesus asked someone with local knowledge. These are some of the many examples of incidental details that combine to explain what would otherwise be puzzling and add authenticity.
5. Do we have Jesus’ actual words?
We probably have more information about what Jesus said than of the oral sayings of any other ancient person, except for book authors. But one problem is that the ancient writers didn’t have quotation marks to indicate the boundaries of a direct quote (John said “X” vs John said that X). Nor did they have ellipses (…) to indicate omissions. Dr Williams calls this “the problem of bounded quotations.” However, as he documents, this doesn’t mean we can’t know what Jesus said.
Jesus taught at a time when leading Jewish teachers encouraged their disciples to memorize what they said. Some even banned writing down their words because it might distract from memorization. Jesus was known as a teacher and even a rabbi [in fact, the earliest written source of the term ‘rabbi’ is the NT], and His sayings were very memorable.
They also reflect the concerns of His time, not those that Gentile church politicians would have put in His mouth decades later. E.g., He compares Gentiles to ‘dogs’ (Mark 7:26-27); criticizes the disciples, the future leaders of the Church, even calling Peter ‘Satan’ (Matthew 16:23); and dies asking why God would have forsaken Him (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34). But He doesn’t solve the pressing problems of the church, such as circumcision, Gentile membership, or how to run the church. Some of these questions might have been answered by a word from the Founder, but they dared not invent them.
We also see parables and Jesus calling Himself “the Son of Man”, while later Christian writings hardly ever use parables or that title.
Another question is, was something lost in the translation from Jesus’ Hebrew or Aramaic to the Greek of the Gospels? But Greek had penetrated the area even before Jesus. The Jewish leaders’ council was called by a Greek-derived name, Sanhedrin (συνέδριον/synedrion, literally “sitting together”, i.e. assembly/council). Jesus also probably knew Greek. He and his father were described by the word tektōn, the Greek term for carpenter or builder (Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55). Living in Nazareth, they would have dealt with Greek speakers and been paid by coins with Greek writings. Jesus also spoke to Roman centurions and Pilate, where the likely common language was Greek.
Sometimes He probably taught in Greek, such as the Sermon on the Mount, given near the Greek-speaking region of the Decapolis (Matthew 4:25–5:1). The Sermon reads elegantly in Greek, with lots of alliteration, making it even easier to memorise. E.g., “poor in spirit” is ptōchoi tō pneumati; “thirsting for righteousness” is dipsōntes tēn dikaiosynēn; “pure in heart” is katharoi tē kardia. Both Matthew’s and Luke’s versions are full of alliteration, probably descended from a longer version with even more alliteration.
6. Has the text changed?
Low-brow skeptics assert that the NT text has been copied, recopied, and re-translated, so we can’t have any idea of the originals. However, such claims betray ignorance of scribal practices and manuscript evidence.
These same skeptics often praise classical Greco-Roman pagan thought. However, it is only thanks to medieval Christian scribes copying the pagan manuscripts that modern skeptics can read the literature in the first place. Even though the scribes strongly disagreed with much of the pagan content, they still made sure to copy accurately.
We also have thousands of Greek manuscripts available today, not available to pioneers such as Erasmus. Yet the differences are tiny, and no doctrine is based on a doubtful reading.
Tyndale House, which Dr Williams leads, produced a Greek NT edition in 2017, after ten years of work. He took special care to spell Greek words “right”, i.e., according to the way people wrote at the time, not necessarily according to modern Greek lexicons. Yet the Tyndale House edition was remarkably similar to other Greek NT editions, produced by different scholars with different emphases. E.g., the first 14 verses of John’s Gospel, comprising 188 words or 812 letters, showed no difference.
But what about changes before the earliest extant manuscripts? First, the only way to prove that something has changed is to produce the allegedly unchanged original. Second, Christianity was spreading so widely that it would be impossible for a would-be corruptor to find all the copies to change them.
7. What about contradictions?
Many of the alleged claims of contradictions are nothing of the sort. Rather, they are different perspectives of the same event. But Dr Williams spends little time on that (for refuting the usual alleged biblical contradictions, see Keeping Faith in an Age of Reason (above right)). Instead, he focuses on formal contradictions, that is A and not-A—not A and B.
However, a logical contradiction means that A and not-A are using “A” in an identical manner. Sometimes a good teacher will use formally contradictory language to encourage his audience to think more deeply about different nuances of words. A good example from modern times is A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, which begins with a famous series of formally contradictory statements:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way
Then Dickens explains:
in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
In other words, these were contradictory and extreme assessments by the loudest voices on opposite sides. So why shouldn’t a great Teacher also use formally contradictory statements to encourage us to think more deeply?
Apostate Bart Ehrman thinks Jesus hopelessly muddled His Farewell Address during His Last Supper (John 13–17), or must have a very short attention span. Peter asks Jesus where He is going; Thomas says no one knows where He is going; Jesus rebukes them “But now I am going to Him who sent Me, and none of you asks Me, ‘Where are You going?’” (John 16:5). Ehrman thinks that either “Jesus had a short attention span or there is something strange going on with the sources …” A far better idea is that Jesus’ contradiction was intentional. Peter and Thomas were thinking of their own bereavement, when they should have focused on Him and where He was going: to His Father’s house to prepare a place for them (cf. John 14:2).
An alleged contradiction in the Old Testament, which is actually a dilemma not a contradiction, is Proverbs 26:4–5. Clearly this was also intentional, making an important teaching point (see Answering fools’ folly).
8. Who would make this all up?
The final chapter explains why all this matters. If the history and geography, attention to detail, originality, and undesigned coincidences are right, then it’s hard to imagine that they could be wrong about the Subject. Not impossible to imagine, because people can be extremely imaginative when it comes to explaining away evidence they don’t like. But the simplest explanation is that the Gospels are true.
A secular materialist by definition will reject all miracle reports. But Christian believers think that skeptics often hold genuinely absurd beliefs by blind faith, e.g., that life came from non-living chemicals and conscious things came from non-conscious things.
Skeptics also claim that miracles disrupt the order of the universe. They don’t explain why the universe should be orderly under their worldview. Also, Christians respond that miracles are not capricious but point to God’s outworking His plan throughout history. In particular, Jesus rising from the dead shows that He really was the One He claimed to be. So the book spends a few pages on evidence for the Resurrection.
Jesus was also the culmination of the history recorded in the Old Testament. God created a “very good” world, which was ruined by man’s sin. God punished man by death and demanded a blood sacrifice to cover sin. But he promised that a Future Seed would redeem humanity. The prophet Isaiah spoke of a future Child who was “mighty God” (Isaiah 9:6), and of a divine Servant dying and then living (Isaiah 53:10–13). Zechariah spoke of God being pierced (Zechariah 12:10). Then John tells us of the Word who is God and became flesh (John 1:1–18).
So could writers have invented details of Jesus’ life to fit into the OT? But the OT does not explain accurate reporting of details of 1st-century Israel, parables, careful distinction between narration and recorded speech about personal names, etc.
The easiest, best explanation is that Jesus is the pivotal figure of history. This explains His goodness, originality, and Resurrection, as well as all the above marks of Gospel reliability that would be accepted without question, had they not discussed miracles. But easy explanation doesn’t mean easy to accept. If He is the saviour of the world, then this is not just a matter of historical interest. The logical conclusion is that everything else we find important in life is secondary, compared to obeying His command, “Follow me” (Matthew 16:24).