Written for the skeptic, the scholar, and everyone in between, this introduction to the historical and theological reliability of the four Gospels helps readers better understand the arguments in favor of trusting them.
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About the Author
Peter J. Williams (PhD, University of Cambridge) is the principal of Tyndale House and the consulting editor and coordinator of this project. He is also chair of the International Greek New Testament Project, which is producing the largest scholarly edition ever attempted of a single book of the New Testament, namely the Editio Critica Maior of John's Gospel. He is the author of Early Syriac Translation Technique and the Textual Criticism of the Greek Gospels.
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What Do Non-Christian Sources Say?
It is hardly surprising that Christian texts are our main source of information about the origins of Christianity. Most books on archery, baseball, or cooking are by enthusiasts of those activities. Christians were the most enthusiastic about Christianity and naturally wrote more about it. The four Gospels were, of course, written by advocates of belief in Jesus as the promised deliverer. They may therefore be said to be biased, in the sense that they are not impartial records but ones aiming to foster belief in Jesus Christ.
However, their bias does not mean we should distrust their record. An innocent man accused of a crime may have a deep interest in proving his innocence, but this bias is not a reason to dismiss evidence he produces. The question, then, is not whether the Gospel writers had an agenda, but whether they reported accurately.
Some sources, however, cannot be accused of bias in favor of Christianity. These include non-Christians who wrote within ninety years of the origins of Christianity and left us with records we can investigate. We will begin by considering three writers: Cornelius Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Flavius Josephus. Each of these had his own reason for writing, but in no case was it the promotion of Christianity. Tacitus and Pliny were, in fact, openly hostile to Christianity.
Tacitus was born around the year AD 56. He held a series of distinguished Roman offices, including being a senator and a consul. He is now most famed for his writings, which include those shown in table 1.1.
Tacitus certainly had biases. He recounted history in order to give moral instruction, praising those he approved of and often applying a whole armory of rhetorical strategies to damn those he disliked. However, his ability to record factual information is first-rate. He could accurately describe remote places he had never visited and was the first to provide literature on the lochs in Scotland. He appears to have had access to sources that allowed him to relate detailed stories from more than four decades before he was born. We therefore have little reason to doubt the broad facts underlying his account of the early Christians as found in his Annals. To quote the Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, "The Annals in particular show Tacitus to have been one of the greatest of historians, with a penetrating insight into character and a sober grasp of the significant issues of the time."
Tacitus wrote about the Great Fire in Rome, which occurred in July AD 64. He told of how it was thought that the mad emperor Nero had started the fire and yet blamed the many Christians then in Rome, accusing them of arson. In his career in Rome, Tacitus would have been able to talk to many adults about its events and to have access to Rome's official records. We therefore have every reason to treat the outline of facts he provides as reliable.
This is how Tacitus tells the story, using the common early spelling of Christians as Chrestians:
But neither human help, nor gifts from the emperor, nor all the ways of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order [of Nero]. Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd called Chrestians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital [Rome] itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and become fashionable. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts' skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the clothes of a charioteer, or mounted on his chariot. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrifices not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man.
The question should be raised how we know Tacitus actually wrote this. Is it not possible that the work of this pagan writer was tampered with by later Christian scribes? This has been the claim of a few scholars but has remained a marginal view for several reasons, of which I will give just two.
First, it should be remembered that all Greek and Latin literature transmitted to us from the classical period to the Middle Ages was handed down by Christian scribes. They preserved the references to Greek and Roman gods and faithfully copied religious ideas that differed from their own Christian views. In the last century or so, much-older manuscripts from before Christian times have been found in the dry sands of Egypt, and these show that scribes generally copied faithfully. The burden of proof is therefore on those who want to maintain that texts have been changed since classical times.
Second, Tacitus had a unique style of Latin, part of what is commonly called silver Latin, to distinguish it from Latin of the golden age of Cicero (107/106–43 BC). As every century passed, Latin changed, as all languages do. Medieval scribes were educated in medieval Latin and would not have been aware of all the differences between their own Latin and that of Tacitus. It would have been difficult for them to imitate Tacitus's style of Latin for more than a few phrases at the most. That is why classical scholars today treat this as a reliable account, at least in regard to the main events.
The narrative provides significant information. We obviously learn that Tacitus did not like Christians (he calls the religion a "disease"), and yet he helps us establish some useful facts. He uses the name Christus, the Latin word from which we get Christ. Tacitus regards Christus as the source of the name, and his followers were a group that others called Chrestiani, with the well-documented vulgar Latin substitution of e for i. We note that Tacitus says it was the crowd who named them Chrestians, not the followers themselves. This fits with the three occurrences of the word Christian in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). The term was first applied by non-Christians and only later was adopted by Christians themselves.
Latin Christus is simply a transliteration of the Greek word Christos, which means "anointed" and is equivalent to the Hebrew word Messiah. As the Messiah was the promised deliverer whom many Jews were expecting, the name Christian tells us clearly of this group's belief that the promised Jewish deliverer had come. As we will see, Christianity arose in the cradle of Judaism, and the further back we go in time, the more Jewish all our records of Christianity are. This means we are able to guess certain elements of the beliefs of this group even without considering their writings.
We may also establish certain other things. Tacitus tells us that Christ was put to death while Tiberius was emperor, thus between AD 14 and AD 37. Tacitus also tells us that this happened while Pontius Pilate was in charge of Judaea, which was between AD 26 and AD 36. Tacitus thus gives us an approximate fixed point for the founding events of Christianity.
In addition to giving us this chronological framework, Tacitus helps us with geographical information. He tells us that the "disease" named after Christ started in Judaea, which is where all the Christian sources also claim Christianity started. Christian texts tell us that Jesus Christ was executed near Jerusalem, the spiritual center of Judaea. Tacitus tells us that at the time of the Great Fire in AD 64, there were many Christians in Rome. He uses the Latin phrase multitudo ingens, "vast multitude." Christianity had clearly spread a long way, since the distance, as the crow flies, between Jerusalem and Rome is around 2,300 kilometers (1,430 miles), greater than the distance between Edinburgh and the north of Morocco, or between New York City and Havana.
Tacitus also explains how Nero treated the Christians cruelly and many of them were put to death for pursuing their religion. We may therefore conclude from Tacitus that Christianity spread far and fast and that being a Christian could be very difficult. The time span between the beginnings of Christianity and the Great Fire in Rome was considerably under forty years.
The rapid spread of Christianity may have relevance for investigating the reliability of the Gospels. Surely, the more widespread Christianity became, the harder it would have been for anyone to change its message and beliefs. This would have been particularly so if the Christians were paying a high price for their faith. Scholars who argue that core Christian beliefs, such as the idea that Jesus rose from the dead after his crucifixion, were innovations arising as Christianity spread by word of mouth need to suggest when this might have happened. The idea that core beliefs arose decades after Christianity began to spread does not explain why Christianity proved popular in the first place or how people who adhered to a version of Christianity without these beliefs later came to adopt them. The later agreement of Christians that Jesus Christ was God's Son, prophesied by the Jewish Scriptures, crucified for sins, and raised from the dead by God is best explained by supposing that these and other central beliefs were established before Christianity began to spread.
Pliny the Younger
We come now to our second Roman witness, Pliny the Younger (born AD 61/62; died after AD 111). Toward the end of a distinguished career, during which he held many public offices, Pliny became governor of Bithynia and Pontus, a region in northwest Turkey. He governed there around 109–111. He wrote specifically to the emperor Trajan (ruled 98–117) on a number of occasions. Pliny's most famous letter is the one he wrote to Trajan asking for advice on how to deal with Christians (Epistles 10.96). He wrote:
It is my rule, sir, to refer to you all matters of which I am unsure. For who is more capable of guiding my uncertainty or informing my ignorance? Having never been present at any trials of the Christians, I am unacquainted with the method and limits to be observed either in examining or punishing them. I have also been in great doubt whether any difference is to be made on account of age, or any distinction allowed between the youngest and the adult; whether recanting allows a pardon, or whether if a man has been once a Christian it does not help him to recant; whether the mere profession of Christianity, albeit without crimes, or only the crimes associated with it are punishable.
In the meanwhile, the method I have observed towards those who have been denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians. If they confessed it I repeated the question a second and a third time, adding the threat of capital punishment. If they still persevered, I ordered them to be led off to execution. For whatever the nature of their belief might be, I could at least feel no doubt that stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy deserved punishment. There were others also possessed with the same madness, but being citizens of Rome I directed them to be sent there.
These accusations spread (as is usually the case) from the mere fact of the matter being investigated and several forms of the mischief came to light. A placard was put up, without any signature, accusing a large number of persons by name. Those who denied that they were, or ever had been, Christians, who repeated after me an invocation to the gods, and offered adoration, with wine and incense, to your statue, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose, together with the images of the gods, and who finally cursed Christ — all things it is said that no real Christian can be forced to do — I thought they should be discharged. Others who were named by that informer at first confessed themselves Christians, but soon after denied it, saying that they had been, but they had ceased, some three years ago, others many years ago, and a few as much as twenty years ago. They all worshipped your statue and the images of the gods, and cursed Christ.
They affirmed, however, the whole of their guilt or error was that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, and of singing in alternate verses ahymn to Christ as to a god, and of binding themselves by a solemn oath, not to wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor to deny a pledge when they were called upon to deliver it up. After this it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food — but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. Even this practice, however, they had abandoned after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your orders, I had forbidden political associations. I therefore thought it the more necessary to extract the real truth, with the assistance of torture, from two female slaves, who were called deaconesses: but I could discover nothing more than depraved and excessive superstition.
I have therefore adjourned the proceedings and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me well worth referring to you — especially considering the numbers endangered. Many persons of all ages and ranks and of both sexes are being and will be called to trial. For this contagious superstition is not confined only to the cities, but has also spread through the villages and rural districts. It seems possible, however, to check and correct this. It is certain at least that the temples, which had almost become deserted, are now beginning to be visited again; and the sacred rites, after a long interlude, are again being revived. There is a general demand for sacrificial animals, for which up to now only rarely were purchasers found. From this it is easy to imagine that a multitude of people may be reclaimed from this error, if a door is left open for them to change their minds.
Trajan then replied more briefly to Pliny (whom he called Secundus; Epistles 10.97):
The method you have pursued, my Secundus, in sifting the cases of those denounced to you as Christians is proper. It is not possible to lay down any general rule which can be applied as the fixed standard in all cases of this nature. No search should be made for these people. When they are denounced and found guilty they must be punished; with the restriction, however, that when an individual denies that he is a Christian, and gives proof of it, i.e. by adoring our gods, he shall be pardoned on the ground of repentance, even though he may have formerly incurred suspicion. Anonymous accusations must not be admitted in evidence against anyone, as it is introducing a very dangerous precedent, and by no means agreeable to our times.
Large Numbers of Christians
We can draw several conclusions from this correspondence. One is that neither Pliny nor Emperor Trajan liked Christians. Another is that it was often difficult to be a Christian. A third is that there appear to have been large numbers of Christians in Pliny's area, a theme found also in Tacitus's Annals. Tacitus spoke of a "vast number" in Rome, and here the governor of Bithynia is writing to the emperor saying that so many people in his area had become Christians that temples were becoming nearly deserted, and sellers of sacrificial meat actually struggled to find purchasers. Of course, we can detect rhetorical flourish behind Pliny's depictions of deserted temples and rare purchasers of sacrificial meat. But despite this, he was writing to the emperor and certainly would not have wanted to risk giving Trajan the impression that he was reporting untruthfully on his province.
The situation in this non-Christian source is strikingly similar to one described in the book of Acts in the New Testament, which is relevant to the question of Gospel reliability, since the style of the book of Acts indicates that it was written by the same person who wrote Luke's Gospel. Acts 19 describes the situation further south in Ephesus, where a huge riot arose because so many people were turning to Christianity that the silversmiths were not able to sell their images of the gods.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Can We Trust the Gospels?"
Copyright © 2018 Peter John Williams.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
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?,
What People are Saying About This
“The wild and unscholarly yet widely accepted assertion by Richard Dawkins that the only difference between The Da Vinci Code and the Gospels is that the Gospels are ancient fiction while The Da Vinci Code is modern fiction deserves a measured and scholarly response. There is no one better qualified than Peter Williams to provide it, and this book is a masterly presentation of a compelling cumulative case that ‘all of history hangs on Jesus.’”
John C. Lennox, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics, University of Oxford
“This much-needed book provides a mine of information for Christians wanting to know more about the historical background to the Gospels and offers a series of challenges to those skeptical of what we can know about Jesus. Peter Williams has distilled a mass of information and thought into this short and accessible book, and it deserves careful reading both inside and outside the church.”
Simon Gathercole, Reader in New Testament Studies, University of Cambridge
“Despite the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, Christians today find themselves unwilling to testify to their faith, as much from confusion as from fear. To this puzzled, anxious flock, Peter Williams offers liberation in the form of a concise yet complete education. His powerful instruction manual on the reliability of the Gospels escorts the ‘faithful seeking understanding’ through a series of historically responsible explanations for questions they have and questions they never imagined. This highly detailed, accurate, and eminently readable volumerich in charts and tablesstrikes a chord so resonant, Christians and skeptics alike can profit. An up-to-date apologia and superlative guideunbelievers, beware!”
Clare K. Rothschild, Professor of Scripture Studies, Lewis University; author, Luke–Acts and the Rhetoric of History; Baptist Traditions and Q; and Hebrews as Pseudepigraphon; Editor, Early Christianity
“With his expert knowledge and skill, yet in a remarkably easy-to-follow way, Williams, one of the world’s leading authorities on the text of the New Testament, takes the reader through various lines of evidence supporting the historical reliability of the Gospels. This books shows why it is rational to trust the Gospels.”
Edward Adams, Professor of New Testament Studies, King’s College London
“This book is superb, a simply wonderful resource. I have bought five copies and will buy more to give away. Clear, insightful, scholarly, thought provokingjust the kind of book to give to believers and skeptical friends.”
Christopher Ash, Former Director of the PT Cornhill Training Course, The Proclamation Trust; Writer in Residence, Tyndale House; author, The Priority of Preaching
“I am amazed how much helpful material is packed into this slender volume. Well done!”
Rick Warren, Pastor, Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, California