Was Christ Born in Bethlehem? by Sir William Ramsay

Sir William Mitchell Ramsay
Sir William Mitchell Ramsay (Photo Source: Wikipedia)

Sir William M. Ramsay’s classic defence of the historicity of Luke-Acts. My thanks to Book Aid for making a copy of this public domain title available for digitisation.

William M. Ramsay [1851-1939], Was Christ Born at Bethlehem? A Study on the Credibility of St Luke. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1898. Hbk. pp.280. [Click here to visit the download page for this title]

Table of Contents

  1. Luke’s History: What it Professes to Be
  2. Plan and Unity of Luke’s History
  3. The Attitude of Luke to the Roman Empire
  4. Importance in Luke’s History of the Story of the Birth of Christ
  5. The Question at Issue
  6. Luke’s Account of the Enrolment
  7. Enrolment by Households in Egypt
  8. The Syrian Enrolment of the Year 8 B.C.
  9. The Enrolment of Palestine by Herod the King
  10. Chronology of the Life of Christ
  11. Some Associated Questions
  • Appendix

Preface

Understanding that a certain criticism implied a sort of challenge to apply my theory of Luke’s character as a historian to the Gospel, I took what is generally acknowledged to be the most doubtful passage, from the historian’s view, in the New Testament, Luke ii. 1-4. Many would not even call it doubtful. Strauss (in his New Life of Jesus) and Renan dismiss it in a short footnote as unworthy even of mention in the text.

This passage, interpreted according to the view which I have maintained – that Luke was a great historian, and that he appreciated the force of the Greek superlative (in spite of the contradiction of Professor Blass and others) – gave the result that Luke was acquainted with a system of Periodic Enrolments in Syria, and probably in the East generally. I looked for evidence of such a system; and it was offered by recent discoveries in Egypt. The confirmation afforded to Luke was explained in the Expositor, April and June, 1897.

Realising better in subsequent thought the bearings of the Egyptian discovery, I have enlarged these two articles into an argument against the view that Luke sinks, in the accessories of his narrative, below the standard exacted from ordinary historians. At the risk of repeating views already stated in previous works, the second chapter attempts to put clearly the present state of the question as regards the two books of Luke, without expecting others to be familiar with my views already published.

The names of those scholars whose views I contend against are hardly ever mentioned. The scholars of the “destructive” school seem to prefer not to be mentioned, when one differs from them. I have learned much from them; I was once guided by them; I believe that the right understanding of the New Testament has been very greatly advanced by their laudable determination to probe and to understand everything, as is stated on p. 33; but I think their conclusions are to a great extent erroneous. It might, however, be considered disingenuous if I concealed that the weighty authority of Gardthausen, the historian of Augustus, is dead against me, p. 102….

Pages vii-ix

Daniel in the Critics Den by Sir Robert Anderson

Daniel in the Lions' Den by Briton Rivière (1890)Sir Robert Anderson [1841-1918] was an Assistant Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police and member of the Open Brethren. In 1885 he wrote this response to F.W. Farrar, then the Dean of Canterbury, who had recently written a commentary on the Book of Daniel in The Expositor’s Bible series. Farrar roundly dismissed the historical claims of that book, so Anderson countered with this defence of a 7th Century dating of Daniel.

This title has been widely republished both in print and on-line, but as I came across a copy at Book Aid I thought it would do not harm to make is available here as well. My thanks to Book Aid for their assistance.

Robert Anderson [1841-1918], Daniel in the Critics’ Den. A Reply to Dean Farrar’s ‘Book of Daniel. Edinburgh & London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1895. Hbk. pp.126. [Click to visit the download page]

Chapter 1

Bv “all people of discernment” the “Higher Criticism” is now held in the greatest repute. And discernment is a quality for which the dullest of men are keen to claim credit. It may safely be assumed that not one person in a score of those who eagerly disclaim belief in the visions of Daniel has ever seriously considered the question. The literature upon the subject is but dull reading at best, and the inquiry demands a combination of qualities which is comparatively rare. A newspaper review of some ponderous treatise, or a frothy discourse by some popular preacher, will satisfy most men. The German literature upon the controversy they know nothing of, and the writings of scholars like Professor Driver of Oxford are by no means to their taste, and probably beyond their capacity. Dean Farrar’s Book of Daniel will therefore supply a much – felt want…

More resources on Daniel can be found here. Of these Alan R. Millard’s recent defence of the book’s historicity is especially helpful.

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.