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.

Notes on the Hebrew Text of the Book of Kings by C.F. Burney

Solomon greeting the Queen of Sheba – gate of Florence Baptistry. Source: Wikipedia

Rev. Charles Fox Burney [1868–1925] was a lecturer in Hebrew at the University of Oxford, becoming Oriel Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture in 1914. This work is effectively a commentary on the Hebrew text of the Books of 1 & 2 Kings.

I had thought, once again, that I would save time by using an on-line text, but on closer examination the one I had chosen had missing and blurred pages and took extra work to correct.

Charles Fox Burney [1868-1925], Notes on the Hebrew Text of the Book of Kings with an Introduction and Notes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1903. Hbk. pp.384. [Click to visit the download page]

Table of Contents

Introduction

  1. Structure of Kings
  2. Characteristics of the Chief Ancient Versions of Kings
  3. The Synchrinisms of the Compiler

List of Abbreviations

Notes on 1 Kings

Notes on 2 Kings

Appendix:

  1. Inscription of Mesha’, King of Moab
  2. The Siloam Inscription
  3. Inscription of the Monolith of Shalmanezer II, II. 78-102
  4. Fragment of the Annals of Shalmeneser II. Descriptive Inscription from the Obleish of Shalmanser
  5. Narrative of Sennacherib’s Third Campaign (B.C. 701) from the Taylor Cylinder, Col. II. I. 34-Col. III.I.41

Additions

Index

Introduction: The Structure of Kings

The fact that Kings, like the other historical books of the Old Testament, is based upon pre-existing written sources is universally recognized; and the evidence upon which this elementary proposition is based need not here be set forth. That the main editor or compiler of these sources was a Deuteronomist, i.e. that his work was inspired by the religious revival which took place in the eighteenth year of Josiah (B.C. 621) under the influence of the newly discovered book of Deuteronomy, appears both from his religious standpoint and from his phraseology. This editor is therefore hereinafter cited under the symbol RD (Deuteronomic Redactor).

To RD is due the stereotyped form into which the introduction and conclusion of a reign is thrown, and which constitutes, as it were, the framework upon which the narrative as a whole is built. The regularity of the method of RO in the construction of this framework is worthy of special notice.

“New Commentary on Genesis” by Franz Delitzsch

Franz Delitzsch [1813-1890
Franz Delitzsch [1813-1890
This commentary on Genesis is not to be confused with the joint work with C.F. Keil and is still considered a valuable resource for Bible students. Several people had suggested making use of material that is already available on-line rather than scanning books myself. I thought I had found a good quality scan of this two-volume set, but soon found that the text required centering, cleaning up, and – in one place – repairing. Overall, I doubt if scanning a hard copy would have taken any less time.

Franz Delitzsch [1813-1890], A New Commentary on Genesis, Vol. 1. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1888. Hbk. pp.412. [Click to visit the download page]

Franz Delitzsch [1813-1890], A New Commentary on Genesis, Vol. 2. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1889. Hbk. pp.408. [Click to visit the download page]

Introduction

Criticism at present fixes the date of the main bulk of the Pentateuch, the so-called Priest Codex, together with the Law of Holiness, which has so striking a relation to Ezekiel, at the time of the captivity and the restoration under Ezra and Nehemiah. The Book of Deuteronomy however presupposes the primary legislation contained in Ex. xix.-xxiv. and the work of the Jehovistic historian. Hence we cannot avoid relegating the origin of certain component parts of the Pentateuch to the middle ages of the kings; and, if we continue our critical analysis, we find ourselves constrained to go back still farther, perhaps even to the times of the Judges, and thus to tread the soil of a hoar antiquity without incurring the verdict of lack of scientific knowledge. Even those who insist upon transferring the conception of the account of the creation in Gen. i 1-ii. 4, and of the primaeval histories…