This is a book review for Peter Williams’ Can We Trust the Gospels?.

Right now I’m preparing a one-hour apologetics-oriented talk on Easter Sunday about the resurrection. We do this every year for Easter, and this year I’m planning on particularly focusing on the gospels and their historicity for evaluating whether Jesus rose from the dead. In preparation, I read Williams’ Can We Trust the Gospels?, a short book of only about 120 pages of comfortably spaced reading text. Even including the time I stopped to take lots of notes and quotes, the book only took around 3 ½ hours to read.

Williams is the principal of Tyndale House, an extremely important and reputable research institute of biblical scholarship at Cambridge. And so Williams isn’t only a tremendous scholar, but he regularly hosts at his institute the world’s leading biblical scholars. He’s probably on a first name basis with all of the living scholars he quotes.

This book is meant to be a layman’s introduction to a very legitimate assessment of where current biblical scholarship is on the gospels. The purpose of this work is to see whether or not there is good evidence to trust the gospels as historically reliable. The book is an incredibly easy read, but doesn’t have to be: He takes very complicated topics in biblical studies and boils them down into terms anyone would be able to wrap her head around. He attempts to tackle so many topics that at times we might have wished he left a couple out and expanded on the others. But in general, this book is a wonderful, powerful introduction to biblical scholarship on the Gospels.

Summary

Williams’ Can We Trust the Gospels? moves through eight chapters that logically flow from a close analysis of the gospels to the wider questions of their accurate transmission. He ends with a look at the resurrection in particular, and its plausibility given everything laid out in the book. The eight chapters (with short summaries) is as follows:

  1. What Do Non-Christian Sources Say? Williams first surveys three non-Christian sources from antiquity which speak of Jesus: Tacitus (b. 56 A.D.), Pliny the Younger (b. 61/62 A.D.), and Josephus (b. 37/38 A.D.). As he reviews each, he considers what facts we learn about Jesus and the early church. Some include:
    • A group now identified as Christians followed a man named Jesus around Palestine, called him Christ, and believed he was the promised messiah of the Jewish Old Testament.
    • By AD 64, there were many Christians in Rome, which means in a few decades this religion traveled 2,300km from Judea to Rome.
    • The earliest Christians were monotheistic and worshipped Christ.
    • Personal family members of Jesus, like James, called him the Messiah, and were willing to die for that belief.
      These sources all corroborate with the Gospels and Acts.
  2. What Are the Four Gospels? Williams quickly surveys the significance of the Gospels in biblical studies. The four gospels are widely recognized, regardless of religious or philosophical affiliations, as the earliest and best historical sources on Jesus. Williams reminds us that “Four is a lot,” and he compares the Gospels with works on Tiberias, the emperor during Jesus’ crucifixion. He concludes, “Jesus has more extended text about him, in generally closer proximity to his life, than his contemporary Tiberius, the most famous person in the then-known world.” (41) Williams also reviews the possible authors and dates for when the Gospels were written.
  3. Did the Gospel Authors Know Their Stuff? In this chapter Williams explores whether the gospels show accuracy regarding the time and places they wrote about. The Gospels show considerable familiarity with Palestinian geography, from names of obscure towns to geographic features only locals would know about. The Gospels use names very specific to the region, including disambiguation designations given to popular names (e.g. Simon the Zealot, Simon the Cyrenian). Further, the Gospels are incredibly Jewish for being texts for a religion that quickly grew into being largely non-Jewish. They’re so jewish, Williams argues, that, if it wasn’t for the prediction of the temple falling, the gospels could easily be dated much earlier for an audience that was far more jewish than later 1st century.
  4. Undesigned Coincidences. John James Blunt (1794-1855) and now more recently Lydia McGrew, have explored what they call undersigned coincidences between gospels, where “writers show agreement of a kind that it is hard to imagine as deliberately contrived by either author to make the story look authentic.” (87) This chapter explains their work.
  5. Do We Have Jesus’s Actual Words? Here Williams first overviews the question of whether or not we have Jesus’ verbatim words. He then works through six major observations of the Gospel texts which, when considered cumulatively, strongly suggest we have Jesus’ words preserved. These observations include: the unflattering words Jesus had for his followers, the Gospels’ heavy use of parables, and Jesus’ designation of himself as the Son of Man, among others. The chapter ends on the topic of whether Jesus spoke Aramaic or Greek and if that matters.
  6. Has the Text Changed? Williams provides a very brief introduction to the topic of textual transmission. His major object lesson is comparing Erasmus’ Greek New Testament with contemporary New Testaments, with the goal of pointing out that Erasmus’ NT, based on only two manuscripts, is strikingly close to being in perfect agreement with contemporary NTs, which are based on thousands of Greek manuscripts. This highlights the enormous confidence we ought to have (and which all biblical scholars do have) of the Gospels as accurately preserved.
  7. What about Contradictions? Williams spends the majority of this chapter focusing on John’s gospel and the apparent contradictions found within the text. Here we see the author purposefully creating contradiction to make the reader think more deeply. All this to point out that internal contradictions most certainly do not mean the text is unreliable.
  8. Who Would Make All This Up? Williams uses the lion’s share of this chapter to first speak on miracles, and then on a historical case for the resurrection. Regarding miracles, he points out that one’s belief in either atheistic materialism or the existence of a personal God determine whether or not the miracles in the gospels are plausible. What does not determine their plausibility is whether the gospel texts are in other respects reliable, because we have found them incredibly reliable. I’ll review his short resurrection argument below.

Three things I like:

Williams covers a lot of ground which can be found in other introductory works on the biblical text (such as in Craig Blomberg’s Can We Still Believe the Bible), and he does it well. Below, though, are three things that I hadn’t seen before or things he did an especially excellent job covering, things which make this book well worth adding to your apologetics library.

Comparing the Gospels with Tiberius

Oftentimes we overlook just how incredible it is that we have four gospels, and that even assuming the most popular critical assessments of their authorship, they are based on at least four, maybe five first-century sources. To stress how unique this is, Williams compares the gospels with Tiberius (42 BC-37 AD), contemporary emperor during Jesus’ ministry and the famous person in Jesus’ part of the world. Williams has some excellent charts to show this. Below I’ve pulled part of the information from those charts.

Date WrittenEarliest Copy
Works Concerning Tiberius
Valleius Paterculus, Roman History 2.94-131301500s
Tacitus, Annals 1-6after 110800s
Suetonius, Tiberiusafter 120800s
Cassius Dio, Roman History 57-58after 220800s
Gospels
Matthew80-90100s-300s
Mark65-70200s-300s
Luke80s200s-300s
John70-100100s-300s

Note how only one of Tiberus’ works is written by someone alive during the lifetime of Tiberius. The rest were written at least 80 years after his death. The gospels, on the other hand, could all have been written within 50 years of Jesus’ death by authors alive during Jesus’ ministry. And note that the gap between the earliest copies of Tiberius’ works and when they were written is at least 700 years. Whereas the gap between our earliest gospel fragments and when they were written are perhaps 100 years, and the gap between complete copies of the gospels and when they were written are 300 years.

Williams also points out that in the case of Tacitus’ Annals and Cassius Dio’s Roman History, only parts of those works are about Tiberius, the rest being about political activities taking place during his reign. When we compare the amount of text in the works of Tiberius dealing with Tiberius with the amount of text in the Gospels dealing with Jesus, we have more actual text about Jesus than Tiberius.

The point of this observation is not to suggest that this means you ought to believe everything within the gospels. Rather, Williams bids us to think soberly about how much information historians have about Jesus, thanks ot the Gospels, compared to other ancient figures.

“It may thus be concluded that Jesus has more extended text about him, in generally closer proximity to his life, than his contemporary Tiberius, the most famous person in the then-known world.” (41)

Christians accurately have copied other texts.

Questions at times arise regarding whether or not Christian scribes, as they copied the Gospels for over a thousand years, changed the texts to make it more Christian. For example, we know that scribes added words to 1 John 5:6-7 to make it sound more trinitarian. (This is my example, not Williams.) Is it possible the Christian scribes did this a lot more in ways we haven’t discovered yet?

Williams points out that, for a thousand years, the only scribes for the preservation of most historical texts throughout the Western world were Christian scribes. And it has been clearly demonstrated that these Christian scribes have accurately passed on the works of cultures before them, including lots of pagan (non-Christian) works. Almost everything we have today of ancient Greek and Roman literature was copied at one time or another by Christian scribes, including works their religious works. Williams observes,

“the overwhelming majority of scribes performed their job conscientiously, such that we can say that Christian copyists succeeded where the Greeks and Romans of the classical period did not. Neither the Greeks nor the Romans passed down to subsequent generations the literature of the cultures that preceded them. By contrast, Christian scribes faithfully copied many pagan Greek and Latin authors with scarcely any inference resulting from the beliefs of the copyists. Christian scribes literally saved the pagan literature.” (112)

If we believe Christians for the most part did not alter their copies of pagan works, surely this lends enormous credibility to the idea that they accurately copied their most prized documents. Williams then spends considerable time reviewing how this is exactly what we discover when we look at the Gospel copies: given the size of the gospels, there are incredibly few variants.

A Simple Resurrection Argument

Near the end of Can We Trust the Gospels, Williams presents a simplified argument for the resurrection, something akin to Habermas/Licona’s minimal facts or William Lane Craig’s usual presentation of the resurrection. Whereas Habermas and Licona usually begin with 5 to 12 facts, and Craig with 3 or 4, William starts with 2 facts generally agreed by historians:

  1. Jesus was buried, and later the tomb later was found empty.
  2. A wide range of people believed they saw Jesus alive.

Now, the first fact is really two, but regardless: This strikes me as a great way to start a conversation on the historicity of the resurrection. As Williams points out, its plausible to come up with a naturalistic reason for one of these, but very hard for both together. For example, maybe the body was stolen, but that doesn’t explain all the people who claimed to have seen him. Also, explaining these facts gets you right into the heart of the biblical Easter accounts. (For fact 2, Williams is thinking of all the resurrection appearances recorded in the Gospels.)

Two things I Found Wanting

Williams is taking on an enormous task. There are hundreds of books and thousands of articles relating to the historicity of the New Testament. And the important topics in this body of literature are very complicated topics, from papyrology to the role and viability of eye witness testimony. Williams takes on a lot of these important topics. Overall, he does a great job. Every now and then, though, in my opinion he goes too fast or maybe shouldn’t have gone there. These criticisms are minor compared to the overall benefit of this work.

Undesigned Coincidences

John James Blunt (1794-1855) and now more recently Lydia McGrew, have explored what they call undersigned coincidences between gospels, where “writers show agreement of a kind that it is hard to imagine as deliberately contrived by either author to make the story look authentic.” (87) This is a cumulative argument: One coincidence can be explained away, but the more you notice… Williams spends a whole chapter on this topic, with numerous examples of these undesigned coincidences. This is all very interesting stuff, but it seems to me not to warrant an entire chapter (10 pages) on a topic that both needs more explaining to be fully convincing and, to my knowledge, isn’t at the center of discussions of the historicity of the resurrection.

Contradictions

Williams has an entire chapter titled, “What about contradictions?” I expected him to tackle what I assume is on most people’s minds with a chapter title like that: What about the apparent contradictions between the gospels, such as between resurrection accounts? Williams, though, spends most of his time walking through contradictions within the single gospel of John, showing how Jesus used contradictions on purpose for literary effect. He sums things up,

“If anyone wants to argue that two Gospel accounts are in such conflict that both cannot be true, he must first ensure that he has correctly understood the claims being made in each text and that he is not reading either of the accounts in a way that is not intended.” (127)

I understand his goal, but this chapter clearly wouldn’t provide a satisfactory answer for a person trying to understand how one resurrection account describes one angel in the tomb and another two angels.

For more information on Williams’ Can We Trust the Gospels?, click here to head on over to Amazon.

For a great podcast interview with Williams on his book, click here to head on over to Apologetics Canada.