This excellent little book by the English biblical scholar Peter J. Williams (not to be confused with the apologist Peter S. Williams) is a readable and informative introduction to some of the main questions people have about the four Gospels. In eight tightly argued but entertaining chapters Williams, who acts as principal of Tyndale House, Cambridge, dispels common myths and furnishes many enlightening facts about Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, avoiding dogmatic overreach but still making a very solid case for their trustworthiness.
Williams’ first chapter surveys external sources such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Josephus to corroborate many features in the Evangelists. Tacitus reported on the “vast multitude” of Christians in Rome in AD 64, the year of the great fire (23). Since there is a distance of over 2,000 miles between Rome and Jerusalem, this testifies to the extent to which the new Faith had spread throughout the Roman Empire in Apostolic times. Incidentally, such witnesses as Tacitus seem to give the lie to the more conservative estimates for the extent of Christianity in the first centuries (cf. also 27). These non-Christian sources also confirm the execution of Jesus in the time of Pontius Pilate.
A real reature of this chapter, which continues throughout the book, is the way Williams appeals to common sense and reasonable expectations to make his points. For instance, on page 34 the author observes,
Skeptical readers…might naturally assume that these beliefs [i.e. about the virgin birth] arose through exaggerations over time as word of Jesus as Messiah spread. The problem with this is finding a context in which such embellishments could spread … According to 1 Corinthians 9:5 (written ca. AD 56) not just one brother, but “brothers” of Jesus traveled with their wives, spreading the Christian message. This suggests a situation in which the sprouting of novel beliefs about the family origins of Jesus would have been hard.
Notice here how Williams allows for the force of the unbeliever’s argument (“might naturally assume”) while giving an answer which is scriptural and provides food for thought. This ability of the writer to converse with those dubious of the Bible’s claims provides a model for effective communication with unbelievers.
The second chapter, “What Are the Four Gospels?” identifies them as ancient biographies, early in date, and surprisingly many (four) for an ancient figure (39-41). It deals with why the Gospel of Thomas is not on a par with the biblical Gospels, and the important matter of the the traditional authorship of the Gospels (43).
Chapter three asks whether the authors got their geographical and cultural facts right, while the next chapter explores the fascinating subject of “Undesigned Coincidences” in the four Gospels, utilizing Lydia McGrew’s recent work on the subject [Hidden in Plain View]. By this term is meant the converging of independent details in different authors which complement and reinforce one another, but without any clear signs of interaction between the sources. Examples include the way personality traits are noted by Luke and John in separate incidents concerning the sisters Mary and Martha (88-89), or Jesus asking Philip where to buy bread (Jn. 6). This looks like a random enquiry until we read John 1:44 and Luke 9:10, which informs us that Philip was from the town of Bethsaida, which is close to where the miracle was performed (92-93).
Chapters about whether we still have Jesus’s words; if the the text of the Gospels has been changed (a particular strength of Williams), and contradictions follow. All are good, especially the first two, although I would have like a little more interaction with alleged contradictions; a few more examples would have helped.
The final chapter is titled “Who Would Make All This Up?” He begins the chapter with a typically sensible statement:
There are many particulars in the Gospels that the authors would be unlikely to have invented. Although one can usually think of complex reasons why someone might invent them, those are not the simplest explanations. The simplest explanation is that these reports are true. (121)
In this chapter the author tackles miracles and the Resurrection, before reaching his conclusion – that the Jesus presented in the Gospels and predicted in the Old Testament is who the Gospels claim He is. The NT does not simply say that Jesus died, but that He was buried. Who would bury a convict who had been crucified? Answer, Jews! They would make sure that people were buried (133). And then there are the resurrection appearances. In a terrific passage Williams sums up the all the varied details of those appearances (134).
Scholarship has well established the strong links between Second Temple Jewish belief and the emergence of Christianity from its milieu (see e.g. Larry Helyer, Exploring Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period). On the back of this Williams comments,
One can make a good argument that the concept of the bodily resurrection of one person in advance of others would have been very odd within Judaism, and therefore it is unlikely that early Christians would have invented it in an effort to continue the Jesus movement after the death of their leader. (135).
The apologetic method employed could best be described as evidentialist, but since the writer is clear that he is presenting a case for the trustworthiness of the Gospels this should not be seen as a flaw.
In summary, Can We Trust The Gospels? is a fine book which packs a lot of important information within its brief compass. It deserves a very wide readership and would be an excellent gift for any growing Christian or non-believer with an openness to its message.
This book was provided to me by the publisher without any obligation to give a positive review.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.