Some reflections on Peter J. Williams’ “Can We Trust the Gospels?”

Detail from a page of the New Testament manuscript Codex Vaticanus (4th century) showing the end of Luke’s Gospel and beginning of John’s Gospel. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Codex_Vaticanus_end_or_Luke.jpg
Detail from a page of the New Testament manuscript Codex Vaticanus (4th century) showing the end of Luke’s Gospel and beginning of John’s Gospel. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Codex_Vaticanus_end_or_Luke.jpg

One of the books I read during my etimasthe summer break was Peter J. Williams’ Can We Trust the Gospels?

In it, Dr. Williams puts forward a range of considerations why the four Gospels of the New Testament are not only credible, but should be believed.

He explicitly does not claim that the truth of the New Testament can be proved. History is not susceptible to proofs in the way that, say, Mathematics or Physics are susceptible to proofs. But he does propose that, from an historical perspective, the Gospels should be accepted as reliable.

“It is only because of the Gospels’ remarkable claims that people regard them as anything other than accurate historical reporting. But if we can put aside our own skepticism about the miraculous, the four Gospels present a very good case for their historical reliability.”

One of the key points he makes — and it is a point well worthy of our reflection — is that, were it not that the Gospels make such incredible claims, historians would have no trouble accepting them as reliable.

It is only because of the Gospels’ remarkable claims — for example, of a God-Man miraculously born from a virgin; of changing water into wine; of walking on water; of rising from the dead — that people regard them as anything other than accurate historical reporting. But if we can put aside our own skepticism about the miraculous, the four Gospels present a very good case for their historical reliability.

However, the part of the book which most impressed me was its very first chapter.

In the opening chapter, Dr. Williams takes a number of first- and early second-century texts by pagan writers, several of whom are antithetical to Christianity, and demonstrates that from these writers alone we can infer a great deal about Christianity in its first hundred years of existence. For instance:—

“The Roman writer Tacitus tells us that ‘Chrestians’ (as he calls them) got their name from their leader ‘Christus.’ He also furnishes us with the information that this ‘disease’ started in Judea during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius.”

  1. The Roman writer Tacitus (Annals, 15.44[1]) tells us that “Chrestians” (Latin Chrestiani, an early misspelling of Christiani) got their name from their leader ‘Christus’ (Latin for ‘Christ,’ from the Greek word Christos meaning ‘anointed one’), and that they were given this name ‘Chrestians’ by the crowd. He also furnishes us with the information that this “disease,” as he calls it, started in Judea during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, after its founder ‘Christus’ had undergone the death penalty during the procuratorship of Pontius Pilate. This fixes the range of possible dates for the beginning of Christianity at between A.D. 26 and 36.[2]
  1. The Roman writer Pliny the Younger was governor of the province of Bithynia and Pontus around A.D. 109—111. During this time he wrote a famous letter to the Emperor Trajan (Epistles 10.96) in which he asked for advice on how he should deal with those brought to him accused of the crime of being Christians. From this letter, and Trajan’s subsequent reply (Epistles 10.97) we learn that by this period there were large numbers of Christians in Pliny’s province — so many, in fact, that the pagan temples in the area “had almost become deserted,” and there was difficulty finding purchasers of sacrificial animals for these pagan shrines.[3] (Incidentally, this agrees well with the situation in the city of Ephesus in the A.D. 50’s, as described by Luke in Acts of the Apostles 19:23-41.[4])
  1. From the Jewish writer Flavius Josephus (A.D. 37—100), who wrote a twenty-volume work called the Antiquities of the Jews, we learn of one “James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ,” who in A.D. 62 was accused by the Jewish high priest Ananas of having transgressed the law of Moses and was consequently put to death by stoning (Antiquities 20.9.1). The information that Jesus had a brother called James agrees with information in the Gospels (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3).[5]

Considering Christianity was a movement which spread ‘from the ground up,’ in a relatively obscure corner of the Roman Empire, rather than being imposed from the top, it is remarkable how much we can infer from these source about the new religion in its first one hundred years, without even having recourse to the New Testament itself.

“I would certainly recommend this book to anybody either wanting to ‘know the certainty of the things you have been taught,’ or who would simply like to ask his or her self the question, openly and honestly, ‘Can I trust the Gospels?’”

Moreover, the agreement between these non-Christian sources and the New Testament itself — to which I have alluded in passing here, and which Dr. Williams discusses much more fully in his book — are powerful evidence of the reliability of the Gospel accounts.

Dr. Williams puts forward not only this, but many other reasons why we should regard the Gospel accounts as reliable. I would certainly recommend his short book to anybody either wanting to “know the certainty of the things you have been taught,” or who would simply like to ask his or her self the question, openly and honestly, “Can I trust the Gospels?”

 

 

Peter J. Williams’ Can We Trust the Gospels? (ISBN 9781433552953) is available now from Crossway publishers. It is available as an e-book currently at £7.36 on the Amazon Kindle Store.

 

 

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Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Anglicised edition). Copyright ©1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). UK trademark number 1448790.

 


[1] Note, this online translation obscures the unusual spelling ‘Chrestians.’ It is nonetheless spelt thus in Tacitus’ text. See the Latin text presented here.

[2] Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2018). Kindle e-book edition: locations 168-222.

[3] Williams, locations 232-282.

[4] Williams, locations 282-292.

[5] Williams, locations 331-371.

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