The four gospels of the Bible – the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – are considered the strongest historical sources for the existence of Jesus. But they consistently come under attack by sceptics who challenge how books that now appear in the Christian Bible can ever be considered legitimate evidence for the very person they obviously want people to believe in. Surely they are tainted.
But Dr Peter Williams, the principal of Cambridge’s Tyndale House – a research institute with one of the world’s most advanced libraries for biblical scholarship – thinks differently. In his latest book – Can we Trust the Gospels? – published late last year, Williams says that the sources we have for Jesus compare reasonably well with the sources historians have for the most important man of the same period – Emperor Tiberius.
“If this is simply people making stories up, they had to do a huge amount of research in order to do so with such accuracy.”
“If someone is prepared to accept that we have reasonable sources for the life of Tiberius, then we’re doing just as well with Jesus,” said Williams in an interview with Dr John Dickson for his Eternity podcast, Undeceptions.
The gospels are considered historical biographies, says Williams. They are accounts of the lives of the historical figure of Jesus, a claim that is widely accepted in scholarship today.
According to Williams, the little details included in the gospels help historians establish their truthfulness. Often when historians scrutinise a text, they are looking for what the author knew about his subject. With the gospels, says Williams, that was quite a lot.
“One test of the gospels’ veracity is whether they display familiarity with the time and places they wrote about,” writes William in his book. “If they do, that does not on its own demonstrate that all of what they wrote is true. It merely shows that the writers had enough know-how to write true stories, and it eliminates the objection that they were too distant from events to be trusted.”
In the podcast, Williams discusses the “incidental details” included in the gospels – such as the names of obscure towns and villages – that could only have been known if the writers had travelled to those places or had discussions with those who were there.
“When you’re able to build up a picture of geography … it’s a telltale mark of someone who knows the subject matter,” Williams said.
Similarly, the accurate use of personal names that fit the time and place the gospels were written in is helpful in supporting their historicity.
“When you look at the gospels and you find the characters have the right sort of names for the time and place, and you can correlate what you have in the gospels with the same sorts of names you get in [the writings of] Josephus when he’s recording his accounts, or the names you get in the Dead Sea Scrolls … you build up a picture that all four gospels as a whole and individually are true to the same pattern. That is not at all what you would expect if these were made up accounts.
“If this is simply people making stories up, they had to do a huge amount of research in order to do so with such accuracy. If the gospel writers are getting these sorts of details correct, that’s highly significant about the quality of the information they are writing overall.”
Listen to the full episode seven of Undeceptions here: Gospel truth. Undeceptions is hosted by author and historian John Dickson and seeks to tackle common myths and misconceptions about the Christian faith.