Can We Trust the Gospels? In conversation with Peter J. Williams

Gavin Matthews spoke to Dr Peter J. Williams for Solas.

Solas: HI Peter – thanks for speaking to us today. I’d like to ask you about your book “Can We trust the Gospels?” which I know a lot of people have found really helpful.

PJW: Thanks! That little book has now been translated into seven languages, and I think it has been useful because it is not embarrassing; but makes reasonable claims.

Solas: You decided to write a popular-level book on the trustworthiness of the gospels. Why was that something that you thought needed to be done?

PJW: I felt there was a gap in the kind of literature that someone could hand out to an enquiring friend who might not be ready to commit a vast number of hours to investigating this. There are some helpful works on the reliability of the Bible (such as Craig Blomberg’s) but those tend to be written for people who are studying theology, whereas I am trying to introduce these ideas to someone who has never thought about them before. So I wrote a book which doesn’t dwell on complex theories of textual criticism or assume background knowledge and is also short. It’s over fifty years since F.F. Bruce published “The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?” and that was in some ways a model for what I was attempting.

Solas: This question “Can we trust the gospels?” has been answered in a number of ways. Some have said ‘no’ it’s all fables; others have said ‘yes – because it sits under the authority of a church/magisterium’. Others have said, ‘just read it and you’ll have a self-authenticating spiritual experience’ – and others have said ‘it says it is, so it must be’ – a kind of circular-argument. But you’ve taken a quite different approach, tell us more..

PJW: The philosophy of knowledge is known as epistemology and a lot of people think that knowledge comes from knowing your epistemology. But it doesn’t, because you know things as a 2-yr old but you don’t have an articulated epistemology then! A lot of what we know is mediated via relationships. We are relational beings and so the concept of “trust” is a key thing. You can see this in the Bible where faith is not seen as an abstract thing, but as personal trust. The other biblical category you get is “witness” which again is a very personal thing. So I come in at that relational angle.

A typical hard-core evidentialist might want to make an argument that the facts themselves speak in such a compelling way that they force you to a particular conclusion. But that is a total “oversell” because there is no coercion that goes on in this. Christians see God revealed most vividly at the cross of Christ. However people can stand underneath that same cross and see compelling evidence that Christ is a fraud. His crucifixion by the Romans, could provide you with a pretty good reason to think that. And that is the nature of evidence, because God is a God who reveals Himself, and a God who hides Himself too, and both of those things are true. Now that has to be the case because evidence is morally structured.

I don’t actually say any of that in the book! But in this book I am trying to bring people through a fairly quick encounter with a sense of confidence in the gospels, because a good case can quite naturally be made that these documents are trustworthy. If people resist that, then they are asked to question what it is within themselves which is resistant to this message. They are prompted to think, “Isn’t there a moral element to me which is running away from God?” I hint at that at the end of the book a little.

Solas: And you draw on a whole raft of different types of evidence, to show the reliability/trustworthiness of the gospels. You cite use of people’s names, geography and several other strands. Give us an idea of some of the threads you bring together in this, and which you find most compelling..

PJW: I’ve been planning this book in my mind for twenty-years! So when I came to write it over a few months, it was relatively easy process. I don’t often enjoy writing but this really flowed because I didn’t have to twist or shoehorn the evidence in to make the case. I opened the gospels and looked at things such as the names, the coins, the biology, and the places that are mentioned. Then I looked to see what knowledge is presupposed there, and there was all kinds. That implies something about the writers and makes you ask the question, ‘how did these writers get hold of all that?’ Because overall the gospel writers have a huge and detailed familiarity with the time and place that they wrote about.

One example of this is that names they use. Simon was the most common name for a Jewish man from Palestine at the time. This is quite different from other places, as Jews in Turkey, Rome or Egypt weren’t called Peter. So that fits, as does the second most common name inside and outside the New Testament which is ‘Joseph’. These are impressive things, but they are only one example because they get everything else right too. People criticise Mark’s geography in one or two places, but they haven’t got a lot to go on, as all of those arguments can be addressed. So at the end of the day the gospels contain an impressive set of things we know are accurate. That’s something that New Testament scholars at universities around the world agree on, by the way. While they might not put it as positively as I do, they would concede that the gospels themselves show all this sort of accurate knowledge. Some might want to make cases for bits of ignorance here and there, but broadly you can’t dispute that Luke knew where Jericho was, (for example) and that is all on the surface of the text.

I think that this is a striking thing because God seems to present Himself to us with evidence. And he doesn’t do so in a way that favours those who have got PhD’s. It is quite democratic and open to all sorts of people to see and that’s what I dwell on.

The Good News is that you could open up the gospels with a friend and read them. Then, without doing the detailed textual analysis that I do – you could probably see signs of reliability. In fact, as humans we are built to be able to detect reliability all the time; we depend on being able to develop interpersonal trust. We need other people socially so that we can even eat, and survive. If you don’t trust anyone you won’t take a vaccine, or go to the supermarket. So the gospels are written so that an ordinary person without any historical training can look at them and think “there’s something about this that really comes across as trustworthy” – just as when you meet a trustworthy person. Of course, sometimes you can be wrong in decisions about who to trust but broadly speaking it works.

Solas: And presumably then, it would be extremely difficult for someone 250miles from the events, 200 years after the life of Christ- to fake these accounts?

PJW: Absolutely! And the further away and later that you want to make the composition of the gospels, the harder it would be to get that right. However, I think there is a gap between what the average person thinks and what scholarship says. There is a popular view that the gospels were written centuries after the life of Christ, or there’s a conspiracy somewhere in the Vatican to conceal the truth. But when scholars debate the dating of the composition of the gospels they are not talking about more than about fifty years of variation. Now, obviously a lot can happen in fifty years, but something can be falsified in a day or an hour and something can be reliably transmitted for centuries!

So no one is compelled to think that everything has been reliably transmitted – but if you do, and you see that it all focusses on Jesus, then you have a coherent explanation for the data.  However, if you accept the claim in the gospels that Jesus is the son of God come into the world to tell us who God is, what He’s like and that He’s come to save us; then the whole picture fits together.

Solas: You also mention that the key ideas about Jesus disperse out from Jerusalem very early on. And you say in the book that that is significant, could you tell us a little bit about why that is?

PJW: Yes, so my first substantial chapter begins with the non-Christian sources and really makes a case that Pliny, Tacitus, and Josephus all corroborate the story in the book of Acts in the Bible, that Christianity spread far and fast in its early years. Now you could try and create a complicated theory for why they might say that if it wasn’t true, but it would look highly improbable. So if you then want to say that substantial bits of the core message were made up later, on the road, after many decades, that presents all kinds logistical problems for how an idea might disseminate from somewhere other than Jerusalem and then permeate throughout the rest of the church. People have tried to do that, but these theories tend to be more messy and complex.

The nature of things is that there is no evidence that will compel people to believe if they do not want to. However there is a beauty and simplicity to saying that this is true.

Solas: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe it was the gospel-sceptic Bart Ehrman who was asked what he would use as his best argument if he had to defend Christianity. And he replied, ‘the story of James’ . James appears as a sceptic of Jesus’ messianic claims in the gospels, but ends up as a worshipper after the resurrection! You mention James in the book – do you think that the power of the story of James has been overlooked?

PJW: Well we have a few data points with James. We have the epistle of James, we have him in Acts and in Josephus too. Josephus doesn’t say that James was a Christian, but it does call him the “brother of Christ”, and he is said to have been stoned for law-breaking. That would make a lot of sense if he was attacked for religious reasons. The early Christians have a memory of him as one of the key leaders in the church. So putting that together in the simplest way is to say that James was convinced that his brother really was the Son of God, which is a remarkable thing within the context of Judaism. And James died for those beliefs within the first thirty years of the beginning of Christianity  – that’s all rather striking. That’s all the more remarkable because he would know where his older brother was born (so the idea that Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem was just made up late in the first-century when people were trying to make it fit with Micah doesn’t work). Again, I’m trying to look at it in a simple way – I’m not saying there aren’t other ways of looking at it. It is just that the alternatives are going to be more expensive, more complex and less elegant; which is always the nature of explanations that run away from God.

Solas: You don’t specify composition dates for the gospels in the book, but you do insist that these are first-generation reports and that they are early, reliable sources. Can you tell us a little about why you take us back to that?

PJW: Yes, so one reason I don’t give dates is because the gospels come with names on them, not with dates! But unless you were going to affirm the chronology provided by Eusebius in the fourth century (and not many people do) then you are not going to have precise dates for the gospels. However, what we can say is that if Matthew and John are by Matthew and John they have to be first-century, and first generation. If Luke is by a companion of Paul, that is first-generation and if Mark is by a companion of Peter that’s basically first-generation too. Apart from the names of the authors, another way of getting to the first generation is by looking at the quality of the information. In comparison we have apocryphal gospels from later centuries which are more confused and whose content doesn’t look genuinely 1st generation. That’s where the argument from personal names is significant. We do know that when people transmit stories, names are one of the first things to change and be forgotten. So if we’re getting a set of names which by their relative percentages are fitting the patterns for the time and place they come from, that’s a good argument that they don’t come via three or four steps of transmission. That process would simply not provide us with the quality of information overall that we observe in the gospels.

Another thing is just how “Jewish” and familiar with the Old Testament the gospels are. Later generations of Christians were more Gentile and less familiar with the Old Testament. Then there are other arguments around the teachings of Jesus. The transmission of the teachings of Jesus only work if it comes from (i) one authoritative source (ii) who was familiar with the Old Testament (iii) within Palestinian Judaism; so let’s say it’s from Jesus! Any other explanation is going to be more complex than you need to be.

Solas; And yet despite the fact that you can put together a very clear, robust case for the reliability of the gospels – most people today dismiss the gospels as mere fable. Why is it that people so easily write the gospels off?

PJW: Well I think that there is an element of spiritual war going on there – and that humans are in rebellion against God. But even at a psychological level, the idea that God is in charge of our lives would make a lot of people recoil from this material.  And sin works at a societal and informational level too. So sin can affect the whole structures by which we disseminate information and misinformation can get embedded in society. Sin is present in everyone, including in Christians of course, such that we all love news which confirms our own biases. So you get to a situation where there is a really substantial gap between reality and perception. I also think that the way that we are supposed to witness is by our integrity and our lives, by modelling Jesus Christ so that others see something different about us. So when Christians are not doing that adequately it creates no incentive for people to look further.  “I’ve seen the book in the person, now I want to read the book”, is what should be happening. We shouldn’t blame people outside the church for not getting better data sources, rather it’s a challenge to Christian believers to make sure that we are communicating Jesus through our lives.

Solas: That’s very helpful. In the book you make several remarks about the coherence of the gospels, particularly the differences between John and the synoptics. Is that a problem?

PJW: I don’t think the differences between John and the Synoptics are very striking, in the perspective of ancient texts. I think what is actually striking is the similarity between the synoptics! If you compare the different biographies of Alexander the Great or Tiberias, they are all very, very different. It’s as if they have four different accounts which are as different as Luke is to John! That’s normal. What is abnormal is that Matthew, Mark and Luke are so similar.

The gospels are selective in what they include and are only nine hours long between them, they are incredibly short! People sometimes have this expectation that any one of them is going to be complete which is not the case.

Sometimes people ask about the “I Am” sayings in John and why they are absent in the other gospels. But in John, Jesus says “I am the light of the world”, in Matthew he says “You are the light of the world”, but the idea that they could become light the world without him somehow giving them light is unrealistic. Then in John, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd”, but in Matthew he portrays himself as a good shepherd. In John, Jesus says “I am the bread of life” and in the synoptics he says, “take eat this is my body which is broken for you”. So it’s not that there is a huge gap there. There is in fact an overlap in which these independent sources arrive at the same metaphors –  that there is an alignment between Jesus and bread, or Jesus and shepherd, or Jesus and light. Now that is really striking.

Now John does present long discourses, but the longest is actually in Matthew! In fact the two people who provide the longest discourses are the two authors who are supposed to be eye-witnesses -the two disciples! So it’s important not to exaggerate those differences or miss the unusual coherence between them for texts of their age.

Solas: Then later in the book you make some comments about the reliability of the transmission of the gospels after their initial writing. Obviously we have to have some confidence in that as well. So can we trust that what we read today is a reasonable representation of what was these writers originally said?

PJW: Well, the first thing is that most literature is well transmitted. Chinese, Arabic, Sanskrit, the Qur’an are all ancient languages and texts well-transmitted over centuries. This is normal. Scribes copy stuff! Today in a copying-culture when we are always copying files, we know that sometimes files get corrupted, but on the whole copying works.

Then if we look at the specifics, there’s been a raging debate between the textus receptus, King James-version-only type people, and those who prefer a more modern critical text. And I try to create a bit of unity here, because I come at it saying that the differences between that Erasmus type text and the modern text is very small if we factor in a certain tendency in Erasmus to print what would go down well with the hierarchies of his day. But if he hadn’t, he’d have passed on something very, very close to the contemporary text.

I make my position pretty clear that I think that the last twelve verses of Mark are not original, and that the woman caught in adultery (in John) isn’t either. However, that is the limit of the uncertainties that there are. So if you take out those two sets of twelve verses, the range of differences that scholars would identify in the original New Testament are tiny. Bart Ehrman would strip out a few more verses that I would retain, but we’re talking about four or five verses, that’s it! So, at the end of the day we are dealing with a lot of similarities and the limits of uncertainties and debates are pretty small.

Solas:  If a 21st century reader is convinced that they do need to take these documents seriously, and they open the documents themselves, and they stumble because they come across things they have already categorically decided cannot happen  (like miracles), where do you start to speak to someone when they encounter things they already “know” cannot be true?

PJW: One of the barriers that people often have is with miracles. But imagine if you lived in a world in which all the other billions of people in it claim that they experience a miracle every night. They get transported out of their bodies and see God every night. You’d think that there must be something weird about you because you hadn’t experienced this. You’d trust the testimony of the people around you, because that is the way we are. So most people reject miracles because of the social way in which knowledge works – not because of a philosophical objection to them that stands up to any rigour. So I’d say to folk, ‘if you believe in an atheistic universe which came about purely by chance, then it is almost infinitely improbable that there are miracles and no amount of evidence will ever convince you otherwise.’ Your prior beliefs dictate how probable you think miracles are. Now when Christians believe in miracles they are not believing in random stuff like pixies getting into my cup of tea or fairies; rather we actually believe in a set of signals. The miracles form messages clustering around the person of Jesus and they group there for the purpose of communicating God’s son to us. So we don’t need to worry that belief in miracles is in conflict with performing scientific experiments, because God isn’t there to mess up signals – rather to create them.

We are not asking people to give up their orderly atheistic universe and then accept that the order is sometimes disrupted by something random. We’re saying that there are a set of signals which cohere around Jesus.  We’re saying look away from that thing you can see that it beautiful because we’re going to show you something even more beautiful that makes even more sense. All of these things come together and form a message in the person of Jesus.

Solas: So if someone reads your book and thinks actually these documents do seem to be reliable. What are the implications for them?

PJW: That Jesus is the Lord of Life, the King of the World and the guy in charge of the universe and you need to give your life to him. But there is something still more wonderful than that: that he has given his life for you. At a human level he submitted to the most painful possible death, but he did that at yet greater cost, in taking on himself the punishment for our sins. So that’s very life-changing.

It also means that Jesus is the organising principle of the universe. The beginning of John’s gospel says that ‘the word’ was always with God and has become flesh. That is the idea that God communicates to us through His Son in an embodied way. God has approached us in person-to-person communication and so he then is the one who we should be following in everything he says.

Solas: So what have responses to the book been like? You mentioned that it’s had several translations..

PJW: It’s in French, German, Hungarian, Polish. Romanian and is going into Italian and Spanish next. The book seems to have touched a nerve and that’s good.

Solas: And if someone is fascinated with what you have written and wants to explore more, what things would you recommend that people read?

PJW: Well, there are a few things I’d recommend. Charles E. Hill’s “Who Chose the Gospels?” is helpful, as is Lydia McGrew’s “Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels” and at greater length Craig Blomberg’s “The Historical Reliability of the New Testament”, which you can see by the title covers more than just the gospels. That’s where I’d start!

Solas: Thanks so much for speaking to us, I hugely enjoyed that and could have spoken for many more hours!

PJW: Thanks Gavin, I hope that’s useful for folks.

Can we Trust the Gospels? By Peter J. Williams is available here:

Peter J. Williams is the Principal and CEO of Tyndale House, Cambridge. He was educated at Cambridge University, where he received his MA, MPhil, and PhD in the study of ancient languages related to the Bible. After his PhD, he was on staff in the Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge University (1997–1998), and thereafter taught Hebrew and Old Testament at Cambridge University as Affiliated Lecturer in Hebrew and Aramaic and as Research Fellow in Old Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge (1998–2003). From 2003 to 2007 he was on the faculty of the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, where he became a Senior Lecturer in New Testament and Deputy Head of the School of Divinity, History, and Philosophy. Since 2007 he has been leading Tyndale House, and he is also an Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity in the University of Cambridge. He is Chair of the International Greek New Testament Project and a member of the Translation Oversight Committee of the English Standard Version of the Bible. He assisted Dr Dirk Jongkind in Tyndale House’s production of a major edition of the Greek New Testament and his recent book Can We Trust the Gospels? was published in late 2018.