Book Review: Can We Trust the Gospels by Peter J. Williams

Can We Trust the Gospels by Peter J. WilliamsThe writings of Dr Bart Ehrman have undoubtedly had a very negative effect on the faith of many. It is widely reported that many young Christians, exposed to his teachings, have abandoned their faith by the time that they graduate from Colleges or University. Christian scholars have responded with numerous books offering both answers to Ehrman’s objections and  new research which serves to demonstrate the credibility of the Gospel accounts of Jesus. I have previously reviewed another book in this genre, The Heresy of Orthodoxy, and was delighted receive a pre-publication of Peter J. Williams book, Can We Trust the Gospels? from the publisher.

This is a very short book (153 pages including indexes), but one that covers a tremendous amount of ground, at the same time condensing a huge amount of scholarly research. This book is not just a good summary of a complex subject, but adds new insights along the way, based on first-hand research, as I will mention again later.

The book is laid out as follows:

  1. What do Non-Christian Sources Say?
  2. What Are the Four Gospels?
  3. Did the Gospel Authors Know Their Stuff?
  4. Undesigned Coincidences
  5. Do We Have Jesus’s Actual Words?
  6. Has the Text Changed?
  7. What about Contradictions?
  8. Who Would Make All This Up?

1. What do Non-Christian Sources Say?

Chapter 1 discusses the importance of the writings of Tacitus (pp.18-24), Pliny the Younger (pp.24-31) and Josephus (pp.31-35), and demonstrates how quickly the Gospel spread across the Empire. It also notes how key teachings of the early Christians, such as belief in the Deity of Christ, were recognised at an early date by non-Christian observers (pp.28-31).

2. What Are the Four Gospels?

Introduces the Gospels, their dating, interdependence, and traditionally ascribed authorship. Arguments supporting the traditional authorship is presented in later chapters. I particularly liked the argument for Matthew the Tax Collector based on that Gospel’s unique interest in financial matters (pp.82-83). Here, as throughout the book, the judicious use of footnotes allows interested readers to find further information. In this chapter I found the reference to Brant Pitre’s book, The Case for Jesus (p.43, n.9) particularly helpful, having repeatedly been assured by people, who ought to have known better, that the Gospels were all originally anonymous.

3. Did the Gospel Authors Know Their Stuff?

I have to admit that, having heard Peter William’s Bible and Church Lecture in London a few years ago, I was particularly interested to see the argument he presented there written down and developed and was not disappointed. There are numerous charts demonstrating the Gospel writers intimate knowledge of Palestinian geography (pp.52-57), hydrology (pp.57-58), roads (pp.58-61), and even Gardens (pp.61-62). Here I liked the point about the writers’ descriptions of Galilee. While Matthew, Mark and John all call it a sea, Williams points out that…

Luke is rather different. It uses the word sea only three times and never to reference a particular body of water. If, as is traditionally thought, Luke came from Antioch on the Orontes, not far from the Mediterranean, he certainly would not have thought of the tiny Sea of Galilee as the sea. He just calls it “the lake”. [p.58. Underlining italics in original]

The next section is based on Richard Bauckham’s research on personal names [pp.64-78, esp. p.64, n.28), showing how the Gospels’ use of disambiguation correlates very closely with the relative popularity of names in 1st Century Palestine, but not outside of that time or location. Combined with further arguments based on the writer’s knowledge of Jewish customs (pp.78-81), botany (pp.81-82), finance (pp.82-83 – already referred to above) and languages they make a strong cumulative case for authenticity.

4. Undesigned Coincidences

Williams then turns to Lydia McGrew’s development of J.J. Blunt’s Undesigned Coincidences, giving several examples of how the Gospels include incidental details that someone without eyewitness information could not possible have known about. It discusses Mary and Martha’s personalities (pp.88-91), the feeding of the 5,000 (pp.91-94) noting the significance of the grass. Having worked in Nepal, where grass withers very quickly after the rains stops, I appreciated the argument here. The final coincidence covers the account in the Gospels and Josephus concerning Herod Antipas (p.94-96).

5. Do We Have Jesus’s Actual Words?

Here is discussed the difference between 1st Century and modern ideas of what constitutes an accurate quotation and it is argued that the disciples of Jesus would have been quite capable of passing on accurate traditions about him. The languages in which Jesus spoke are discussed (pp.106-109). He notes:

Language contact means that a Jew speaking in Greek to a Jewish audience would plausibly be able to use specificly Aramaic words as recorded in Matthew 5:22 (raka) and 6:24 (mamona), both of which occur in the Sermon on the Mount. Also, by the time of Jesus many Greek words had been loaned into Aramaic. If Jesus originally told the parable of the prodical son in Aramaic, there is no reason why he could not have used some of the very vocabulary found in our Greek version, such as the Greek word symphonia (“music,” Luke 15:25), which by then had been adopted into Aramaic. Jesus presumably would have spoken Greek to the Greeks in John 12:23, with the Centurion in Matthew 8:5-13, with a  Greek woman in  Mark 7:26, and possible also with the Herodians in Mark 12:13.” [p.109. Underlining italics in original]

6. Has the Text Changed?

In this chapter, Williams draws, not for the first time (p.81, p.52), on his own research and work in textual criticism to argue for the veracity of the Greek text of the Gospels. Again, the rapid spread of the church throughout the gospels is said to make it impossible for major doctrine changing textual variants to be deliberately introduced (pp.120-122).

7. What about Contradictions?

This chapter is very brief and focuses on formal contradictions in the text. These are deliberate and “…show that the author is more interested in encouraging people to read deeply than in satisfying those who would find fault.” (p.127).

8. Who Would Make All This Up?

The final chapter concludes that the simplest and best solution that explains the Gospels as we now have them is that they are what they claim to be.

Who Should Read This Book?

I think that anyone who has been challenged by the work of critics such as Bart Ehrman would find this book of great help. It would also be good to place it in the hands of non-Christians who are considering the claims of Jesus and have doubts about the Gospels. Personally, I found myself encouraged to dive into the suggested further reading (p.13, n.1), but most of all to read the Gospels again with a fresh appreciation of their depth, accuracy and sophistication.

Book Details

Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels? Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018. Pbk. ISBN-13: 978-1-4335-5295-3. pp.153.

Tom Wright and the Search for Truth: A Theological Evaluation

Tom Wright and the Search for Truth: A Theological EvaluationDr Tom Holland has asked me to announce the imminent publication of his evaluation of the theology of N.T. Wright:

Tom Wright and the Search for Truth: A Theological Evaluation

I have long felt that someone ought to write a comprehensive, probing critique of N. T. Wright’s theological thought. I’m very grateful to Tom Holland for tackling this challenging, yet much-needed task. Holland rightly, I believe, raises serious concerns regarding Wright’s methodology, which tends to elevate Second Temple literature above the Hebrew Scriptures.

While Wright is correct in his efforts to peel back layers of Reformation tradition in reading Paul, Holland shows that Wright’s own methodology does not always live up to the noble aims of the critical realism he espouses. No doubt there is much to learn from Wright’s scholarly contribution. The way forward, however, I believe, is subjecting Wright’s work to the kind of constructive critique Holland has provided. It is my hope that this volume marks the beginning of an even more thoroughgoing scrutiny of Wright’s reconstructed synthesis-with the result that Paul’s thought can be discerned more cogently from the New Testament documents against the most important ancient background, which surely must be the inspired canonical contributions of the Old Testament writers. Even the most ardent followers of Wright, not to mention Wright himself, will want to take note of this measured, yet pointed and sustained interaction.

Andreas J. Kostenberger, Senior Research Professor of New Testament & Biblical Theology, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Founder of Biblical Foundations (www.biblicalfoundations.org)

Dr. Tom HollandAnyone wanting further details should go to Apiary Publishing. A 50% pre-publication discount is being offered on the Kindle edition until the end of October. A paperback edition will be available at a later date.

About the Author

Dr. Tom Holland is a Research Supervisor at Union School of Theology. He is a Baptist minister who has planted two independent evangelical churches in North Hertfordshire. He has been a visiting lecturer in Poland, USA, New Zealand, Singapore, Nepal and Korea.


Update 24th October 2017

Click here to download the “Books at a Glance” review of this book in PDF. The paperback version should be available soon from the Apiary Publishing site linked above,

The Jesus Scandals: Book Review and Giveaway

Instone-Brewer, David I was dlighted when David Instone-Brewer, with whom I work on Tyndale House’s STEP Project, contacted me and asked me to write a review of his latest book, The Jesus Scandals: Why He Shocked His Contemporaries (and Still Shocks Today).
I have always been fascinated with research that attempts to shed light on the meaning of obscure biblical texts by drawing upon relevant background material from the culture of day. In this case the author uses the theme of “Scandals” in Jesus’ life and teachings and among Jesus’ friends, using his extensive knowledge of rabbinic sources, to explain why what Jesus said and did was so shocking to the religious people of his day. scandals-small Each chapter contains references to these sources for further reading.

Of course, there are dangers in relying on background alone to clarify the meaning of biblical texts. There are countless examples where new interpretations of particular verses have been suggested based on background material that later turned out to have been misinterpreted, or in one case I can think of, completely fabricated! Rabbinic material is difficult to date, so that danger of an anachronistic interpretation is very real. However, the author is well aware of these potential pitfalls (as he has described in detail elsewhere), and strives to avoid falling into them.
The chapters are deliberately short and pithy, allowing them to be read in a few minutes, meaning that they could easily be used to provoke a discussion in a Bible Study or home group context, especially as a modern day application is suggested. The chapter on “Censored Arrest Warrant”, based on a document acquired by Tyndale House in Cambridge, where David works, can also be viewed as a video:

I found this and the chapter on “Child Abuse” particularly interesting as I had never come across this material before. Those interested in the New Testament teaching on divorce will want to read the chapters on “No Fault Divorce” and “Marital Abuse”, perhaps going on to read the author’s major work on that subject [Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities].

Whether you agree with all of David’s conclusions or not, I am sure that you will find as I did that your understanding of the context of Jesus’ life and ministry is expanded and enhanced, and so warmly recommend this book. For a sample chapter and a peak at the introduction and table of contents, click here.

I thought that this was such a great book that I bought another copy which you can win book by entering the giveaway below [i.e. it is not the free copy I was sent to review 🙂 ].

This Giveaway is now closed.