With dozens of books on the reliability of the Gospel accounts on the shelves, Can We Trust the Gospels?—by Tyndale House principal and Cambridge University lecturer Peter J. Williams—distinguishes itself by its mastery of materials, high accessibility, and relevance. Williams is a world-renowned expert on New Testament texts and manuscripts (debating to considerable effect the likes of Bart Ehrman), and therefore he is eminently qualified to answer the question, can we trust the Gospels? His learning and experience find evidence on each page, substantiating the conclusion that with each passing generation our confidence regarding the reliability of the New Testament grows. In less than two hundred pithy pages, he efficiently narrates in nonspecialized language the state of the art regarding the reliability of the four Gospels by touching on both major talking points and areas of dispute, without needless filler.
In the opening chapter, Williams compares the contents of the Gospels with non-Christian authors closest to the composition of the Evangelists to ascertain the historic reliability of overlapping persons, events, and locations. Tacitus, Josephus, and Pliny the Younger provide a great deal of credibility for the Gospels in each category. The Gospel authors seem to have provided not only accurate accounts when compared to their pagan counterparts, but even the transmission of the same proves extraordinarily reliable. Christian scribes, Williams reminds us, were the transmitters of all Greek and Latin literature from the classical period to the Middle Ages. “They preserve the reference to Greek and Roman gods and faithfully copied religious ideas that differed from their own Christian views” (21). In other words, Christian scribes, like Jewish scribes before them, give every appearance of being the most reliable transmitters of texts—both Christian and non-Christian.
Williams notes how compressed the time is between the purported historical events of the miracles, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, their record in the Gospels, and the proliferation of the gospel per se: “The problem with supposing that novel beliefs arose later [than AD 62] is that, by then, Christianity had spread so far and so fast, that it would have been difficult to introduce innovations” (34). What we do find is cumulative evidence for the Gospels being produced within the time limits of reliable memory—that is, “from the first generation of Christians” (49).
Comparatively, we learn that having four Gospel narratives on one person—Jesus Christ—is remarkably incomparable. That is an abundance of material to have about any individual of that period. “Even though Jesus was on the periphery of the Roman Empire, we have as many early sources about his life as we have about the activities and conversations of Tiberius” (39). In fact, we have more information given Paul’s attestation and other epistle writers, to say nothing of non-Christian sources.
Williams reviews the authenticity of material in chapter 3, “Did the Gospel Authors Know Their Stuff?” Here, the details are what matter: the Gospel authors knew intimate details about geography, popularity of names, disambiguation of names, finances, and Jewishness. Williams then explodes the much-used analogy of “the game of telephone” as altogether unsuitable for the detail-oriented content of the Gospels. Whereas the game is specifically optimized to produce corruption, the Gospels are optimized to confirm veracity. As the author states,
The very conditions in early Christianity were unsuitable for producing corruption: they were marked by a high emphasis on truth, sense of authoritative teaching, a wide geographical spread among followers of Jesus, and a high personal cost to following him. A plausible scenario for accidental corruption simply was not there. By contrast, the view that people passed on reliable information explains the data more simply. (78)
Chapter 4 may provide for readers altogether fresh material on “undesigned coincidences”—that is, signs of authenticity that show “agreement of a kind that is hard to imagine as deliberately contrived by either author to make the story look more authentic” (87). Again, attention to details within the Gospels are compelling in making an aggregate case that, in fact, the Gospels are highly reliable as historical accounts of the teaching and events of Jesus who is called Christ. The details, however, never disappoint the reader regarding biblical insights and significance. Williams has a way of introducing us into greater depths within the Gospels’ details that never feels pedantic, but always like serendipitous discoveries while beachcombing.
The concluding chapters treat the authenticity of Jesus’ actual words, the transmission of the texts through the centuries, supposed contradictions and ancient biographical forms, and miracles, offering the most salient points from modern scholarship in the least intimidating way.
Can We Trust the Gospels? provides honest, clear, simple, and well-reasoned scholarship and arguments about the authors, dates of composition, and sources that are easily recalled and readily shared by readers. Within its apologetic genre, it’s one of the best of its kind.
Outfitted with footnotes, fifteen tables, two indices, and space for marginalia, the publication befits the quality of its contents. Thoughtful lay people, high schoolers, and college students will doubtless benefit from its contents as a competent response to pop skepticism concerning the word of God.
Rev. John Bombaro (PhD) is the programs manager at HDQRTS USMC, The Pentagon. He lives in Virginia with his wife and children.