18. The Reliability of the Gospels

by Blake

 

The Christian religion is unlike many other religions in that its foundation is not based on some ethereal truth that is found in the supernatural world.  Rather, it is based on a single event that physically happened in the past.  The resurrection is a historical event that transpired in the physical world and so it is investigable just like any other event in history.  If this historical event is found to be false, then Christianity is false.  The evidence by which we go about testing the veracity of the resurrection is found in the documents of the gospels.

I.  The Manuscripts

Between Paul and the gospels, we have five accounts of the resurrection, all written between 20 and 60 years after the resurrection.  Beyond this, we have 11 other historical sources that refer to the events of the resurrection.  Conservative scholars date the gospel of Mark to late 50’s or early 60’s A.D.  Matthew and Luke are dated slightly later, in the 60’s A.D.  John was probably written 85 or 90 A.D.  This is a remarkably short period of time by ancient standards.  For example, compare this to the information we have on Alexander the Great.  Alexander the Great died 400 years before the earliest existing biographies we possess of him and yet classical historians still regard the information we have on him as reliable.

The New Testament was written 1,500 years prior to the invention of the printing press.  For this and other reasons it cannot be judged by our current standards for manuscript evidence but should be judged by the standards used for classical works of antiquity.  

It is true that we do not possess any original writings from the New Testament.  But the fact is that we do not possess autographs of any ancient documents of any kind from this ancient time.  To expect this kind of evidence of the New Testament would be an unfair expectation that we do not place on other works such as Herodotus, Plato, or Homer.  Possessing no original manuscript is exactly what you would expect to find whether the gospels were authentic or not and so this cannot be used as a test for authenticity.  Instead, a different standard is used by historians to judge ancient works.  

What historians do is they look at the number of handmade copies that have survived.  Ancient people possessed no other way to physically preserve their writings except for scribes to hand copy them.  Not only did this preserve them, but this also allowed the writings to be disseminated throughout the world where copies in different parts of the world were then re-copied.  Many of these copies from all over the world survived and historians are now able to compare all these copies from around the globe.  There came a time, relatively early, when there were so many consistent copies spread throughout the world, that no single entity like a pope or emperor could change the documents without the change being a glaring difference that would call into question that copy as being a fake.

Using this more appropriate standard, that historians of all religious stripes use, the New Testament far surpasses all other ancient writings.  We currently possess 5,800 manuscripts of the New Testament in its original Greek prior to the invention of the printing press and if you include other languages in that list then we have about 25,000 copies.  Compare it to the next most documented ancient writing, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey which were highly valued manuscripts of the ancient world, so revered that Greek school children had to memorize them.  We only possess about  2,500 copies of these works of Homer.  New Testament historian Craig Blomberg says in his book, Can We Still Believe the Bible, that after Homer’s works the next most documented manuscripts are down into the triple digits and subsequent documents very quickly go down into double digits.  

Besides the sheer number of biblical manuscripts we possess, it is also striking to compare the time gaps between date written and our earliest copies.  In the case of Homer, the Iliad was written in 800 B.C. and our earliest manuscript still in possession is from nearly 2,000 years later.  Plato’s works were written 1,300 years prior to the earliest manuscript evidence we possess.  In the case of Herodotus, considered the father of history, the time gap is 1,350 years.
The Gospel of John, on the other hand, has a time gap of about 40 years.  It was written around 90 A.D. and manuscripts we currently possess date back to 130 A.D.  The Rylands Library Papyrus P52 (shown below) is a 3.5”x2.5” piece of papyrus that has John 18:31-33 on the front and John 18:37-38 on the back.  The manuscript from which this fragment comes was copied just forty years after the gospel of John was originally written.

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Rylands Library Papyrus P52 (front)

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Rylands Library Papyrus P52 (back)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some people argue that the gospels contain far too many textual variants – hundreds of thousands it is claimed – and that they should therefore be considered suspect.    But these variants are spread out over 25,000 handwritten copies.  Of course the most prolific documents would contain the most textual variants.  (The same statistical property is in play when you consider the fact that Brett Favre holds the NFL record both for the most completions and the most interceptions).  According to Blomberg, the majority of these textual variants in the New Testament are spelling differences.  Of the remaining, about 1,200 make any slight difference in the meaning of the text.  Of those, footnotes make clear to the reader the 300 or 400 most significant.  The fact is that no Christian doctrine or ethical mandate and nothing of significance to Christianity hangs solely on any disputed text.  

 

II.  The Time

A common criticism of the gospels is that since they were written so long ago, we can’t really be sure they are accurate.  The thought is: how can we trust what a 2,000 year old document says?  Ironically, the reason we can be so sure they are accurate is precisely because they were written so long ago.  Historians understand that what matters in judging date is not the time between when the documents were written and the present, but rather the time between when the documents were written and the events those documents describe.  A historical account written today of the Iraq War would be as accurate ten years from now as it would be 50 years from now.  The closer in time to the events described, the better.  The gospels were written back at a date when the information was fresh and eyewitnesses to the events they describe were still around and could discredit them if untrue.    

Other critics grant that the gospels were written relatively soon after the events in question, but still, they say, the earliest gospel, Mark, was written 30 years after Jesus’ death.  (At this point, the critic has switched from arguing that the gospels were written too early to arguing that they were written too late).  You can’t even get two people to agree on what happened 30 minutes after a car accident, they say.  You probably can’t even remember what you had for lunch yesterday.  How can we trust a document that was written three full decades after the events it describes?  Michael Licona, a New Testament scholar, makes the point that we tend to remember big, important events in our lives much more than the trivia.  There are still World War II vets alive today and while they may be hazy on details of a traffic accident that just occurred or they may not remember what they had for lunch yesterday, I’m certain that they would remember the key events of their time in WWII which was seven decades ago.  This is the equivalent time that transpired before the final gospel was written (John).  The same is true of Vietnam vets which would represent the equivalent time gap before Mark’s gospel was written.  If you met someone who you believed was the son of God, surely that would qualify as an important event that you would remember, even if you got some of the surrounding details wrong.

Another important point to remember is that this was an oral culture that related stories by verbally repeating and then memorizing and passing them down.  This is hard for many people to accept because in our world of written words, and digital storage, it is difficult to imagine what would be possible with oral history, but memorization was such an integral part of their culture that they became extraordinarily proficient at it.  Greek school children, for example, were required to have Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey committed to memory and those two works were 200,000 words.  Luke, the longest gospel, is only about one tenth that size.  To people who find this unbelievable, consider the fact that this sort of memorization still goes on today in certain conclaves in Israel where rabbis have entire books committed to memory.  According to New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg, they do it not by sitting down to memorize it, but by setting it to music and poetry and reciting it over and over.  In ancient Israel children weren’t even allowed to discuss scripture unless they had first memorized it.

 Some argue that this oral passing down of history is like the child’s game “Telephone” where a secret is passed around a circle and by the time it reaches the last person, the secret is different than the original message.  New Testament scholar Peter J. Williams makes the point that this is an inaccurate analogy because  the game of telephone is designed to create discrepancies for the fun of the game.  A long line of players is set up, you can only whisper, you can’t ask to repeat, etcetera.  A more apt analogy, he says, would be to compare it to Martial Arts.  In the Martial Arts, the originator who has built the system passes it down to an apprentice who treats the system as sacrosanct, and diligently teaches others who also become committed to preserving the purity of the system.  After a system like Judo has been passed around the world, if somebody suddenly decides to change it all up, it would be obvious that this new, altered Judo would no longer be Judo, but something else altogether.  And so the purity is maintained.

 

III.  The Authors

Who wrote the New Testament?  Some people question the authorship of the gospels and suggest that perhaps these were unreliable, anonymous stories passed down through time.  But the truth is that we have good historical evidence to believe Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the authors.  We  have very early writings – around 100 A.D. – of early church fathers who attribute the gospels to these four.  Early church leaders such as Papias and Justin Martyr quote the gospels and attribute the gospels to the four and nobody ever disputes this.  This is stronger evidence than we have for the authorship of the works of Plato.  In the case of Plato, we merely find two documents with consistent style and make assumptions about author identity from that information.  Even if Matthew, Mark, Luke and John aren’t the correct authors, it was most likely someone who was a close follower of them.

New Testament historian Craig Blomberg makes the point that Matthew, Mark and Luke would be strange choices to falsely attribute the gospels to.  It’s true that all three are mentioned in the New Testament, but in ignominious ways.  Mark is only mentioned in Acts because he abandoned Paul and Barnabas during their first missionary trip.  Acts 15:37-39: “Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work.  They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company.”

In some ways, Luke would be an even less likely choice to falsely attribute a gospel to.  He was a physician that traveled with Paul sometimes, but he is a peripheral character within the New Testament, only appearing within some of Paul’s letters among lists of people as Paul is giving his greetings.

Matthew was one of the original disciples but an obscure one, lower on the totem pole than the others.  The Bible says he was a hated tax collector before becoming Jesus’ disciple – hardly an ideal person to falsely attribute a gospel to.  Blomberg claims that it is only John who has the right pedigree to be a gospel writer, as the Bible refers to John as one of Jesus’ most trusted disciples.   

Another point of contention sometimes raised about the authors of the gospels is their bias.  The argument is that they were biased and were merely trying to prop up their fallen leader after he’d been crucified.  Peter J. Williams in his lectures makes an excellent point about bias when he says that bias doesn’t always discredit an argument.  After all, when a lawyer is defending his client, the judge doesn’t dismiss his arguments on the grounds that the lawyer wants his client to win.  Or when a doctoral student is defending his thesis, his advisors don’t dismiss his arguments just because the student wants to pass.  The fact is that a lot of times we aren’t biased, but have simply come to believe in something because we have looked at the evidence and believe it for good reasons.  If you are going to dismiss all argument in cases where the arguer has reason to win the argument, that would eliminate all argument anywhere by anyone for anything.  

Some argue that even if the New Testament authors were relaying truth, it would be nice if we had some kind of corroboration from outside of this group of Jesus’ followers.  But this position is a little bit backwards.  The biblical gospels are included in the canon because they are the best, most documented sources we possess.  To look outside the Bible is to go to less reliable sources.  

But even so, it turns out that we do in fact possess information outside of the Bible supporting the events depicted in the Bible.  There are eleven sources outside the Bible that corroborate various information from the gospels.  Some of these sources include Josephus, Lucian, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus and Suetonius.  If the Bible never existed, we would still have the following information gleaned from extra-biblical sources:

  • Christ existed and lived in Israel in the first third of the first century.
  • He was born out of wedlock.
  • As a young adult his ministry intersected with that of a man named John who baptized people for the repentance of sins.
  • Jesus had a brother named James.
  • He gathered disciples together who became his closest followers (five of them are named).
  • He worked “wondrous deeds”.
  • At least one Jewish tradition says he was a sorcerer who led Israel astray and that his miracles came from a diabolical source.
  • He regularly got into conflicts with Jewish authorities over legal interpretations and that led to his being crucified during the time of Pontius Pilate which means we can narrow the time frame to between 26 AD and 36 AD.
  • Despite his death he was believed to be the Jewish messiah, the expected Jewish liberator.
  • His followers believed he was seen resurrected from the dead so much that a community of his followers continued to gather weekly and eventually began to sing hymns to worship him as if he were God.

This is an enormous amount of information, all from people who were not Jesus’ followers and didn’t have anything to do with the creation of the Bible.

Many people are already familiar with these extra-biblical sources like Josephus and Tacitus, but what they aren’t familiar with are the extra-biblical sources that are actually cited within the New Testament itself.  There are certain points in the New Testament where earlier sources are quoted, some of them dated to within just a few years of Jesus’ death.  One example of this would be Mark’s passion narrative.  The Gospel of Mark is mostly composed of fragmented vignettes from Jesus’ life, but when it gets to the passion narrative in chapters 14 and 15, we see one long, continuous, smooth-flowing narrative.  Historians believe this segment was borrowed by Mark from an even earlier source.  This would place Mark’s passion narrative extremely close to the events of the resurrection, since Mark is already the earliest gospel.  Another example would be Paul, citing the formal creed he quotes in I Corinthians 15: 3-5.  These verses are a memorized creed that Paul writes down and it is dated by historians to within just a few years of Jesus’ death.  Other early, extra biblical sources cited in the New Testament include Matthew’s so called “M” source and Luke’s “L” source.  It is clear from all these references made in the New Testament that however late any given New Testament book is dated, it is based on material that came much, much earlier.

 

IV.  The Details

What other clues can we discern from the gospels?  The gospels are four separate accounts of the events that transpired mostly in the last three years of Jesus’ life and these accounts all vary in certain ways.  Some people claim that these variances amount to contradictions and that because of these contradictions, the gospels should be regarded as completely unreliable.  After all, if you catch someone lying on the witness stand, it calls into question their entire testimony.  

One thing to remember when looking at certain contradictions within the New Testament is that writing was very different 2,000 years ago.  Quotation marks did not even exist yet when the New Testament was written.  It was originally written without spaces between the words.  It wasn’t divided up into chapters until 1228 A.D. and it wasn’t divided up into verses until 300 years after that.  There were also stylistic differences.  There was less of an emphasis on telling stories chronologically – many times similar type events would be grouped together instead of being told in order.  Also, sometimes authors would take a series of events and collapse them down into a smaller period of time.  These differences in writing style and technique are seen throughout the New Testament and they sometimes lead to apparent contradictions.  Let’s look at a few of these contradictions to understand what we are referring to.

One such contradiction occurs in the crucifixion story.  According to Mark, both criminals on either side of Jesus cursed him.  But according to Luke, only one of the criminals cursed him and the other one says: remember me when you come into your kingdom.  According to New Testament skeptics, it is because of differences like this that we should discard the entirety of the gospels.  But as New Testament scholar Michael Licona points out, maybe this isn’t a contradiction at all.  He suggests that perhaps they both cursed Jesus, but then one of them “sees how Jesus is patiently suffering, asking God to forgive the very people who crucified him” until one of the criminals asks Jesus to remember him when he dies.  Is a deathbed conversion such as this really beyond the realm of possibility?  If this scenario is at least possible, then we can’t call this a certain contradiction.

Another apparent contradiction is the difference in the number of women who visited Jesus’ tomb.  Matthew, Mark and Luke say that it was a group of women that visited the tomb on the morning Jesus rose.  But according to John 20:1-2:

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.”  

It is certainly true that John only mentions Mary but he does not state that it was exclusively Mary.  Perhaps there were others with Mary, as the other three gospels state, and John just didn’t mention them.  Haven’t you ever been telling a story and in one version you elaborate on details, mentioning each and every person who was involved and in a more brief version, you mention only the principal person involved?  It must be conceded that it is at least possible that this is what is going on here.  In fact the next verse in John illuminates that this is most likely what happened.  It says:

“So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!’

The personal pronoun, “we” clearly refers to a group rather than a single person.  It’s hard to believe that this should be considered a true contradiction.

A third example of an apparent contradiction is how according to Luke, all of the post resurrection appearances of Jesus, including the ascension, happen on Easter Sunday whereas the other gospels portray the different appearances as happening over a period of several weeks.  Which is true?  New Testament scholars take this to be the telescoping technique referred to above where events are collapsed down to a smaller period of time.  You see this in other ancient writings and in other parts of the New Testament (such as when Jesus cursed the fig tree – according to Matthew, it wilted immediately whereas according to Mark, it wilted later as they observed it while returning from Jerusalem).  Part of why we know that this “telescoping” method was taking place here in Luke as he describes Jesus’ appearances is because in Acts (also written by Luke), he actually refers Jesus’ appearances as being over a period of 40 days.  

There are other examples of contradictions in the gospels.  Many of these apparent contradictions can be reasonably resolved as we have done here, but some of them cannot.  But the fact is that they agree on the major events that transpired even if they disagree on some of the details and this is actually what you would expect to find.  It turns out that when you have multiple, independent witnesses, their stories should never precisely match.  This is such a firm truth of testimony that when police detectives find identical witness accounts, it actually raises red flags.  J. Warner Wallace is an apologist who worked as a police detective for many years tells the story of a time when he arrived at the scene of a crime where there were two witnesses.  It was raining, so the responding officer placed the two witness in his squad car, out of the rain.  According to Wallace, the officer had just ruined the two witnesses because where once he had two, independent testimonies that would reflect individual perspectives, he now essentially had a single story since the two witnesses could discuss their experiences in the squad car and taint each other’s’ perspectives, essentially coalescing the two perspectives into a single “agreed upon” memory.  Wallace says that for this reason, one of the first things officers do at crime scenes is separate the witnesses from each other.  

The value of a detective having multiple independent witnesses to an event is that they can look at the nuanced perspectives – those points that each witness respectively remembers, includes, excludes, and contradicts.  Each is a valuable personal perspective.  What is interesting is that due to the different points that are remembered between individuals, questions are sometimes raised by one witness that are peripherally answered by another in ways that neither of them could have known.  Where investigators observe this, they find good reason to believe the accounts are true.

Above you saw a defence of a few of the inconsistencies in the Gospels, but there are also examples of conspicuous details where the gospels unknowingly confirm each other – details that the Gospel writers wouldn’t know to add, that corroborates each other’s testimony.

Peter J. Williams gives an excellent example of this in the gospel story of the feeding of the 5,000.  The story is cited in all four gospels but each relates the stories from their own unique perspective.  Look at the peculiar ways they seem to answer each other’s’ questions.

 

Mark and John both mention the grass and how it was healthy.

Mark 6:39: green grass

John 6:10: much grass

 

In Mark 6:31 it mentions that there were many people coming and going but the text doesn’t say why or anything else about this statement.

Mark 6:31: there were many coming and going

 

But then in John, it tells why there might have been people coming and going.  It mentions that it was passover time, when people of the area took pilgrimages.  

John 6:4: it was Passover time

 

It just so happens that if you look at a precipitation chart of the area at the time of Passover in April, the region is just coming off of the wettest five months of the year – a time when the grass would be lush and green.

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*This graph is from Peter J. Williams’ lecture.

 

At one point in John’s account of the same story, Jesus asks Philip where they could obtain bread.  New Testament scholars have always found this a little strange because Philip was not one of the more prominent of Jesus’ disciples that you find him asking questions like this of.  Usually you find Jesus speaking with John or Peter in this way.

John 6:5: Jesus asks Philip where to buy bread from

 

Also in John, you have Philip and Andrew both reply.

John 6:7-8: Philip and Andrew reply

 

If you then go over to the Gospel of Luke, you see geographically where this event is taking place: Bethsaida.

Luke 9:10: Feeding was near Bethsaida

 

And if you look back in John, earlier on in the gospel, you can find an answer as to why Jesus might have been asking Philip where to find food and furthermore why Philip and Andrew both might have answered this question.

John 1:44: Philip and Andrew were from Bethsaida

With stories like this, New Testament scholars find pieces from different gospels that fit together in ways that the authors couldn’t have known because they peripherally answer each other’s questions.

 

We all experience events in a subjective way that we perceive against the context of our own personal lives and because of this, certain organic differences will naturally crop up in our testimonies.  It doesn’t mean that the witnesses are deceiving or delusional or have faulty observations.  The fact that there are certain differences in the four gospel accounts is actually a testament to their truth.  If they were identical, we would have far less information.

Does this mean that we could accept any difference without tarnishing the reliability of the testimonies in question?  Of course not.  In 1912, when the Titanic sank, more than half of the people on board died.  When the survivors were interviewed afterwards, some said the ship broke in two pieces before sinking and some said it sank intact.  This seems like a glaring contradiction.  But people didn’t look at this contradiction and then conclude that the Titanic did not, in fact, sink.  Instead, they recognized that the eyewitnesses were right on the major event, the sinking, but wrong on this detail, as obvious as it might seem.  Likewise, it would be unreasonable to look at the contradictions between the four gospels and then conclude that Jesus was not crucified and then resurrected, the major event that they all agree on.  While there can and should be certain differences among witnesses, such as the number of women that visited Jesus’ tomb, or the number of angels at the tomb, they should not discredit certain overarching facts, such as the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Besides the co-confirming details within the Gospels, there is also research into certain aspects of the gospel stories that have to do with the familiarity of the gospel writers with the location of the events they describe.  It has long been understood by historians that the four gospels were written outside of the locations they describe.  Matthew was probably written in Syria, Mark in Rome or Syria, John in Ephesus and Luke perhaps in Antioch or Rome.  While there is some disagreement on the specific cities of origin, it is acknowledged almost universally that they were written outside of the land of Israel where the gospels take place.

Knowing that the gospels were written outside of Israel, New Testament historians can then look at information in the gospels and see if the authors got certain details about first century Israel right.  They look at fields of study as diverse as botany, architecture and 3geography to see how accurate the gospels are on these details.  By noticing things like the Sycamore tree in the story of Zacchaeus, they are able to look up Ficus sycomorus and see its range (indicated on the right), and verify that this particular plant, although located primarily in Africa, did grow in the small region of Israel as well.   

 

In the case of geography, researchers are able to look at the way the gospels mention obscure towns in Israel that they couldn’t have otherwise known.  New Testament scholar, Peter J. Williams has studied this and used the apocryphal gospels as a control to compare the use of geographical names in the four biblical gospels versus geographical names in apocryphal gospels.  He asserts that the Biblical gospels mention a variety of places well known such as Jerusalem and Nazareth as well as obscure places such as Bethphage and Emmaus, whereas the apocryphal gospels only mention the most well known cities.  And the gospels don’t just mention the places either, but they indicate certain distinctions as well such as the fact that Capernaum is next to water or even travel times between these obscure sites.  In the graphs below, Williams compares the number of place names in the four Biblical gospels to five apocryphal gospels (the gospels of Philip, Thomas, Judas, Peter and Mary).  

 

 

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First, Williams compares the number of words of the four gospels to five of the apocryphal gospels.

 

 

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Then, Williams compares the number of place names used in the four gospels to the five apocryphal gospels.  There is a clear difference between the Biblical gospels and the apocryphal gospels in the usage of place names.

 

 

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And here, Williams compares place names per-thousand-words of the four gospels to five apocryphal gospels.  Here, you can see how the four gospel writers use places names at a uniform and high rate unlike the apocryphal gospels.     

 

In this way, the apocryphal gospels serve as great evidence for the reliability of the Biblical gospels since they show us what “made up” gospels look like and with respect to geographical reference, they look decidedly different than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Another detail that has only recently been discovered in the last ten years concerns the personal names used within the gospels.  The field of study known as Onomasticology is the study of the history and use of proper names.  The use of names and their proportion in a culture is inextricably tied to time and place.  The top names in America 10 years ago were different than the top names in America today.  Likewise, the top names in India today are different than the top names in America today.  The use and frequency of names are like a fingerprint to a culture and this information can be used to verify authenticity.  

In 2002, an Israeli researcher named Tal Ilan, compiled a list of names from Israel from the period ranging from 330 B.C. to 200 A.D.  Using the names on ossuaries along with the names found in the writings of a variety of writings from the area, she was able to compile a list that included 3,000 names.  This had never been done on such a vast scale before.  It was like we suddenly possessed a phone book from first century Israel.  New Testament scholar, Richard Bauckham then conducted a statistical analysis on the 3,000 names and cross referenced it with the names mentioned in the gospels.  His thought was that since the gospels were written outside of Israel, then if it got the proper names right – in frequency and proportion – then that would be an interesting clue giving further credence to the gospel narratives.   

The first interesting point that this research yielded was that frequency of names in the New Testament follows the trends the other ancient Jewish sources.  Frequency of New Testament names are not scattered all over the chart.  There is a pattern in the frequency of New Testament names that is in line with the archaeological evidence on names.

 

RANK NAME JOSEPHUS DEAD SEA SCROLLS OSSUARIES NEW TESTAMENT TOTAL
1 Simon 29 72 59 8 243
2 Joseph 21 78 45 6 218
3 Lazarus 20 52 29 1 166
4 Judas 14 35 44 5 164
5 John 13 40 25 5 122
6 Jesus 14 38 22 2 99
7 Ananias 10 13 18 2 82
8 Jonathan 14 21 14 2 71
9 Matthew 12 15 17 2 62
10 Manaen 2 23 4 1 42

*This chart is from Peter J. Williams’ lecture about Richard Bauckham’s findings laid out in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

A second piece of information found was that not only was the order of frequency in line for the most part, but the proportion of the top names was in line as well.  In the chart below, you can see that the gospels had percentages for the top names, extraordinarily close, given the small data sampling.  Even if the gospel writers were somehow privy to the most common names of the region, it is hard to believe that they would know these percentages and then incorporate them into their stories to give the illusion of authenticity.  

ISRAEL GOSPELS/ACTS
Top 2 men’s names: Simon and Joseph 15.6% 18.2%
Top 9 men’s names 41.5% 40.3%
Top 2 women’s names: Mary and Salome 28.6% 38.9%
Top 9 women’s names 49.7% 61.1%

*This chart is from Peter J. Williams’ lecture about Richard Bauckham’s findings laid out in his book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

A third interesting result from this name research is subtle and perhaps the most convincing.  When someone had a more common name in Israel, it was necessary to add a qualifier to distinguish them.  You find this all the time in the Bible in examples such as “Simon the Leper” and “John the Baptist.”  What’s interesting is that the gospels qualify exactly the right names – those common names for which you would need a qualifier.  This trend is apparent throughout the gospels, but look at one critical example in Matthew when the twelve disciples are listed.  The frequency rank from the archaeological evidence is listed in parentheses after the name.

Matthew 10:2-4

The names of the twelve apostles are these: first,

  • Simon (1), called Peter, and Andrew his brother, and
  • James (11) the son of Zebedee, and John (5) his brother;
  • Philip (61) and Bartholomew (50);
  • Thomas and Matthew (9) the tax collector;
  • James (11) the son of Alphaeus,
  • and Thaddaeus (39);
  • Simon (1) the Cananaean,
  • and Judas (4) Iscariot, who also betrayed him.

You find this trend throughout the gospels and they always get it just right.  When a commonly used name is used, they are qualified but when a more unique name is used, they are not qualified.  This use of qualifications matches our statistical analysis of ancient names to an extraordinary degree.  It is interesting that the gospel writers would have such a nuanced understanding of the commonalities of names if their stories weren’t true.  This information was unknowable to us until the statistical analysis done by New Testament historians just ten years ago.

Just like we did with the analysis of the geography above, we can use the apocryphal gospels as a control in the experiment to see how well they fare.  The most common name in the gospel of Thomas, for example, is Didymos.  In the gospel of Judas, only two names are mentioned: Jesus and Judas.  You find similar anomalies throughout all the apocryphal gospels.  These apocryphal gospels stand in stark contrast because not only do the biblical gospels have the most common names of the time and place (in spite of being written in a foreign land), they even have them in the right proportion.

Imagine trying to create a fictitious narrative that takes place in Mexico and without the use of the internet, you are able to come so extraordinarily close to the statistical frequency of proper names there.  With this new evidence, skeptics of the gospels have to believe such a thing happened when the gospels were written.  When you consider all the details between names, geography, botany and architecture, it seems to most historians that it is authentic.  It rings true.    

According to Peter J. Williams, most skeptics say one of two things about the gospel writers.  Either they were really dumb and arrived at falsity or they were really clever and engineered falsity.  It seems more reasonable to say these early christians were neither dumb nor clever, but just ordinary people that had experienced this man who behaved wholly different than anyone they had ever experienced.  When you take all the facts and put them together – the manuscript evidence, the authorship evidence, the very early timing of the gospels, along with the peculiar way the gospels seem to get details right – it is difficult to believe that it’s all just incorrect historical reporting, or that it’s just a big hoax.  It seems far more likely that what was started with Abraham, anticipated by the prophets, was completed in Jesus.  

 

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