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.

Greek New Testament Produced at Tyndale House aims to be ‘world’s most accurate’

Tyndale Greek New TestamentTyndale Greek New Testament

After 10 years of scholarly work, Tyndale House is launching a new version of the New Testament in its original Greek language, which aims to be the most accurate ever published. Taking as its authority the very oldest available manuscripts, the new edition reflects as clearly as possible the earliest recoverable wording of the books.

The version of the Greek New Testament that currently forms the basis of most English Bible translations was published in 1975, but since then several important ancient manuscript discoveries have been made. The Greek New Testament Produced at Tyndale House includes the evidence from these manuscripts, presented in a way that mirrors the sources it is drawn from. This means that paragraph marks reflect the earliest manuscripts rather than being edited to create a text flow that is more appropriate to modern languages. Tyndale House has also been involved with others in pioneering new techniques that can account for copying errors made by the scribes who created them.

About the Editors

Dr Dirk Jongkind

The edition’s editor, Dr Dirk Jongkind, Vice Principal of Tyndale HouseDr Dirk Jongkind, Vice Principal of Tyndale House, has given a decade of his life to leading the Greek New Testament project in order to achieve a version that reflects the latest thinking on these so-called “scribal habits”. According to Dr Jongkind: “As God’s unique revelation of himself to the world, the Bible is unfathomably precious, and it is our desire at Tyndale House to make the very best academic research about the New Testament available to those who work on our modern translations of it.”

Dr Jongkind“The scribes who copied the texts that have become our earliest known manuscripts of the New Testament were only human, and inevitably they made small mistakes. The great thing is that now we have so much evidence at our fingertips, we can study the types of errors the New Testament scribes made and come to more informed conclusions about what the text being copied would have said. Christians will be relieved to know that our 10-year study of the most important manuscripts shows that while errors are part and parcel of the copying process, there is no evidence whatsoever of systematic revision of the text. So while a scribe might accidentally change ‘Jesus Christ’ to ‘Christ Jesus’, we don’t encounter textual differences between the manuscripts that materially change the meaning.”

Dr Jongkind was previously curator of the Codex Sinaiticus documents (one of the earliest known complete New Testaments in the world) held by the British Library, and his PhD focused on the textual habits of the scribes who produced the manuscript. He is an Associate Editor of the Tyndale Bulletin and serves on the editorial board of the Journal for the Study of the New Testament. A fellow of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge University, since 2005, he is currently Academic Vice Principal of Tyndale House.

Dr Peter Williams

Dr Peter Williams, Principal of Tyndale HouseThe associate editor of The Greek New Testament Produced at Tyndale House is Dr Peter Williams, Principal of Tyndale House. Dr Williams is chairman of the International Greek New Testament Project and a member of the translation committee of the English Standard Version of the Bible.

The Greek New Testament Produced at Tyndale House will be available from Cambridge University Press (£115 for calfskin binding, £85 for French Morocco leather binding and £47.50 for imitation-leather binding; www.cambridge.org) and IVP (£55.99 for TruTone imitation leather binding and £30.99 for hardback; www.ivpbooks.com).

About Tyndale House

Tyndale House is a Christian institute for biblical understanding, with a rigorous data-driven approach to tackling questions about the nature, origin and meaning of Scripture. Founded in Cambridge in 1944, it has become the headquarters of a global fellowship of Christian academics that includes many leading members of the biblical scholarship community. It is also home to one of the world’s most significant libraries for biblical studies, as well as the Tyndale Bulletin academic journal.

For further details about The Greek New Testament Produced at Tyndale House, or for interviews with Dr Dirk Jongkind, please contact Alice Jackson, Tyndale House Communications Officer, at [email protected] or 01223 566624. More information about the edition can be found at www.thegreeknewtestament.com.

 

Frequently asked questions

Why do we need another Greek New Testament?

Soon after the publication of Erasmus’s first edition of the Greek New Testament in 1516, multiple editions of the Greek New Testament began to be published. Until the 19th century, however, these editions differed more in their scope and textual apparatus than in the actual text. But since the mid-19th century, editions of the Greek New Testament have differed more significantly in their text, based on the discovery of, and eclectic selection from, many more Greek manuscripts than were available to Erasmus. Around 1975, however, a number of factors led to the nearly universal adoption of a single standard text, published by the German Bible Society. Since 1975, significant advances have been made in our knowledge of the text of the Greek New Testament. This has included (a) the discovery of further primary material (eg, early papyri), (b) improvements in the accuracy with which we can use early versions, and (c) careful study of scribal habits. Existing Greek New Testaments have generally not been updated in light of this accumulated knowledge.

To what manuscript family does this Greek New Testament foundationally appeal?

This Greek New Testament is a revision of a previous Greek New Testament edition produced in the 19th century by Samuel Prideaux Tregelles. This major 19th-century edition was used as a textual source in Westcott and Hort’s classic edition The New Testament in the Original Greek.

Other than through an indirect influence via Westcott and Hort’s work, however, Tregelles’s edition was the only major 19th-century edition that was not part of the genealogy that contributed to the 20th-century Greek New Testament editions. This unjustly neglected edition followed a thoroughly documentary approach — which, with some variation, is most akin to the current editors’ work. The GNT editors therefore used Tregelles’s foundational work as a template, while at the same time re-evaluating all its readings in light of all major subsequent editions and in light of the earliest manuscript evidence. The editors have sought to ensure that all the words, spellings, and paragraph marks are found in multiple manuscripts and in at least one early manuscript.

 

How different is this text from the Nestle-Aland/UBS text?

The editors of the GNT believe that some significant improvements can be made relative to other existing editions. For example:

1) No previous edition has ever used the recent studies on the habits of scribes to inform editorial decisions as to what the earliest text was. Recent decades have provided a wealth of material regarding the errors scribes were likely to make, thereby providing the means for the Tyndale House editors to make more informed decisions about textual history.

2) In general, previous editors have allowed themselves considerable liberty in standardising spelling, making paragraph divisions, deciding punctuation, and other matters. Sometimes this has meant that modern editions have standardised spellings or introduced textual divisions against a very strong consensus of early manuscript witnesses. This may hide significant data about the origin and even interpretation of the Greek New Testament, as it is not possible to study the extent of variation of the spellings in the New Testament based on editions currently available. Attention to these and other philological details will make the GNT a particularly useful edition from which to begin philological investigation.

 

Will this text be made available digitally?

This text will be available digitally and will be free for many uses around the world, in accordance with the desire of Tyndale House to serve the global church in an open-handed way with the very best Greek text possible.

Tyndale House News – June 2017

TYndale House Newsletter Header June 2017

Reproduced by permission of Tyndale House Communications Dept.

 

Langham Partnership Welcomed Back

Following the completion of our single rooms renovation we were delighted to welcome Dr Chris Wright, Dr Ian Shaw and some of this year’s Langham scholars to Tyndale House to mark the designation of a Langham room available for the purpose of Langham scholars to use in the months and years to come.

 

Licence signing

Licence signing between Crossway with Cambridge University PresMay marked the licence signing between Crossway with Cambridge University Press for further publication of the new edition of the Greek New Testament, expanding its academic field of distribution.

Interested in finding out more? Visit the Greek New Testament blog

 

Professor Steve Walton’s Inauguration

Congratulations to Steve Walton, former Tyndale House Honorary Research Fellow, who delivered his inaugural professorial lecture at St Mary’s University, Twickenham last month.

Professor Steve Walton's Inauguration

Speaking on how Luke ‘does theology’, both drawing out principles of Luke’s approach, and looking at how particular parts of his Gospel and Acts communicate about God and God’s ways, watch Steve’s lecture here.

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Alison Stacey, Tyndale House archivist talking at the Christians in Library and Information Services' visit to Tyndale House.
Alison Stacey, Tyndale House archivist talking at the Christians in Library and Information Services’ visit to Tyndale House.

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