Dr. Peter J. Williams is the principal of Tyndale House, Cambridge. His book Can We Trust the Gospels? picks up on the themes of his excellent 2014 lecture on the historical reliability of the gospels, the four biographical accounts of Jesus found in the Bible.
- Short and eminently readable, this book deserves a place alongside Strobel’s classic Case for Christ and J. Warner Wallace’s more recent Cold-Case Christianity as a comprehensive defense of the gospels’ historicity. However, the book stands out for its scholarly tone and exceptional content. Strobel and Wallace are effective communicators, but Williams reads like an academic in the best way possible. This is not a book you’d hesitate to hand to a university professor.
- Although Williams treats standard subjects like non-Christian sources for Jesus’ life and the abundance of ancient New Testament manuscripts, his focus on the less well-known internal evidence for the reliability of the gospels is the book’s strongest feature.
- Williams includes Bauckham’s data on the accuracy of the usage of proper names in the gospels (p. 64-66), but goes far beyond it, examining issues like the incidence of accurate geographical names in the gospels (p. 52-58), botanical knowledge (p 81-82), and local topography (p. 58-59). The evidence he presents demonstrates convincingly that the the gospel writers were either residents of 1st century Palestine or accurately transmitted the accounts of people who were.
- My favorite piece of evidence relating to names is the function of disambiguators in the gospels (p. 67-75). Following Bauckham, Williams notes that not only do the frequencies of proper names found in the gospels/Acts match the frequencies found in the historical record, but the most popular names like ‘Simon’ or ‘Jesus’ are accompanied by descriptors: “Simon Peter”, “Simon the Leper”, “Jesus who is called Christ,” “Jesus of Nazareth,” etc… It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which non-eyewitness accounts managed not only to get the frequency of proper names right, but also managed to append modifiers to precisely those names which were most common during that time period and in that particular location.
- The Argument from Undesigned Coincidences has undergone something of a resurgence with the publication of Lydia McGrew’s book Hidden in Plain View and Williams includes it in Chapter 4. Briefly, the argument highlights ways in which independent gospels provide mutually corroborating details that are difficult to explain precisely because they play such a minor role in the narrative.
- Several particularly compelling undesigned coincidences surround the story of the miraculous feeding of the 5,000, which is present in all four gospels:
1) Mark mentions that “many were coming and going” (Mk. 6:31) prior to the event but doesn’t explain why.
2) John mentions that Jesus asked Phillip where to buy bread, but doesn’t say why (John 6:5).
3) A small boy offers Jesus two barley loaves (John 6:9), without further comment.
4) Mark and John observe that there was “green grass” (Mk. 6:39) or “much grass” (Jn. 6:10) at the scene of the miracle, but don’t elaborate.
- These minor details scattered through each gospel fit together elegantly with information found in other gospels. By combining the stories, an explanation emerges for each of the four points highlighted above:
1) The miracle happened just before Passover (John 6:4), when great crowds would have gathered for the festival.
2) The miracle occurred near Bethsaida (Luke 9:1), which is why Jesus addressed his question about buying bread to Philip, who was from Bethsaida (John 1:44).
3) Passover occurred just after the barley harvest, which explains the boy’s food.
4) Rainfall data from Tiberias shows that the grass would have been green at this time of year (p. 93). That these incidental remarks fit together so naturally and in an uncontrived way suggests that they reflect accurate, independent reports of a real incident.
- Chapter 3 stopped so abruptly that I wondered whether the editor had accidentally omitted a paragraph. Perhaps the original ending was lost and later copyists will append a suitable conclusion that involves snake-handling (apologies for the terrible Bible-nerd joke).
- Likewise, the chapters were uneven in length and complexity. Chapters 4 and 7 are respectively 10 and 6 pages long, while Chapter 3 fills 36 pages. Given the brevity of the book, I hope that the second edition expands on the topics that were given fairly cursory treatment.
- My most significant concern arises from the shortest of these chapters: “What About Contradictions?” In the space of a mere 6 pages, Williams observes that many alleged contradictions are not formal, logical contradictions and -indeed- are often deliberate pedagogical techniques meant to spur the reader to more careful reflection (e.g. in what sense does Jesus “judge no one” (Jn 8:15) and in what sense does Jesus have “much to judge” (Jn. 8:26)?). While this claim is certainly true, it fails to address the contradictions that skeptics are likely to allege in the gospel accounts.
- Williams’ response to these other concerns is limited to a single paragraph which concludes with the statement: “For all the many contradictions that have been alleged in the Gospels, and for all the texts that remain puzzling, I do not know of any that cannot possible be resolved” (p. 127). While I agree that many of the alleged contradictions in the gospels are dubious or even patently absurd, I suspect that this terse dismissal will not be very satisfying to skeptics who are acquainted with the handful of more legitimate purported biblical contradictions.
- Here, the book would greatly benefit from a distinction between biblical inerrancy and biblical reliability. The data presented by Williams makes an incredibly strong case for the overall reliability of the accounts in the gospels. That reliability is of great importance because it entails that the Jesus was a real, historical person words are more or less accurately recorded in the Bible, leading directly to Lewis’ famous Trilemma: Jesus is either God incarnate, as he claimed, or he is a wicked cult leader. Note that we need not think that the Bible is without error or even that it is divinely inspired to feel the force of this argument, which is precisely its strength. We cannot put Jesus off with speculation about how many angels were at his tomb; he confronts us with his words and character and demands that we make a choice..
- Unfortunately, if we don’t make the distinction between inerrancy and reliability, we leave an escape route: the skeptic can demand that we answer every biblical difficulty that Google can throw at us. We can gently close this door by reminding him that biblical inerrancy is an inference from what we know about the person of Jesus: we can argue from Jesus to the inerrancy of Scripture, but there’s no need to prove the inerrancy of Scripture before presenting people with the biblical Jesus.
Overall, this phenomenal book is my hands-down favorite as an introduction to the historicity of the New Testament. Hopefully, later editions can expand on objections to New Testament reliability and the challenges posed by critical scholarship.