Daily Archives: 7 Nov 2018
The Gospels―Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John―tell the story of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ while he was on earth. But how do Christians know if they are true? What evidence is there that the events actually happened? This accessible introduction to the historical and theological reliability of the four Gospels, written by New Testament scholar Peter J. Williams, presents evidence from a variety of non-Christian sources, assesses how accurately the 4 accounts reflect the cultural context of their time, compares different accounts of crucial events, and considers how these texts were handed down throughout the centuries. Written for the skeptic, the scholar, and everyone in between, this book answers common objections raised against the historicity of the Gospels in order to foster trust in God’s Word.
The book is arranged thusly:
- 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?
Each chapter save the 4th asks and answers questions relevant to the issue of the volume: can the Gospels be trusted to deliver accurate information about Jesus of Nazareth and his historical existence. Bit by bit, chapter by chapter, Williams answers in the affirmative.
The question, of course, is – is he right? Are the Gospels historical sources? Williams begin by stating his reason for pursuing this question:
I have long felt the need for a short book explaining to a general audience some of the vast amount of evidence for the trustworthiness of the four Gospels. There are various great treatments of this topic, and each book has its own focus. This one seeks to present a case for the reliability of the Gospels to those who are thinking about the subject for the first time. I could have made the book far longer by giving more examples and references or by considering objections, but for the sake of brevity I have cut out everything unnecessary. I have sought to give enough information for interested readers to check the evidence, but I have generally avoided referring to the literally millions of pages of New Testament scholarship, of which I have read only the tiniest part.
A sensible enterprise and one, it has to be admitted, which occupies rather a lot of people’s minds. But the question remains to be answered and so Williams launches into his exploration. Assembling his evidence, he first concludes that folk like Tacitus and Pliny and Josephus lend credence to the basic outlines of the Gospels. This leads him next to a discussion of what exactly a Gospel is. Williams accepts a fairly early date for each of the four Gospels and assumes as well that the authors were first generation Christians and thus very close to the events which they narrate in a Bauckham-esque fashion.
These virtually contemporaneous texts, Williams goes on to argue in the next chapter, leads to the notion that they knew what they were talking about when they described events and deeds from Jesus’s life. Marshaling linguistic and geographical evidence from the Gospels, Williams insists that such material could only come from folk very familiar with the actual landscape and customs of 1st century Jewish Palestine.
Next Williams argues
The Gospels show particular signs of authenticity that have been labeled undesigned coincidences. The Cambridge theology professor John James Blunt (1794–1855) crystallized a form of this argument, and the same argument has been developed more recently by Lydia McGrew. There is not space here to repeat these arguments, which can be read elsewhere, so I will content myself with just a few examples. In an undesigned coincidence, writers show agreement of a kind that it is hard to imagine as deliberately contrived by either author to make the story look authentic.
If that sounds a tad like circular reasoning it may be because it is a tad like circular reasoning. But Williams has his reasons for following this line of thought and he more than adequately explains it (though he may not persuade many to his view).
The ‘very words of Jesus’ are the topic on the next chapter, the next brick in Williams’ wall of evidence for historicity. The voice of Joachim Jeremias can be heard if one listens carefully enough. And to be honest there’s nothing here to argue with. Williams is completely right to opine
The fact that the Gospels do not have verbatim agreement is not on its own a concern when we consider that the modern rules of bounded quotation did not exist at the time of the Gospels. The view that some, much, most, or even all of Jesus’s teaching was done in Aramaic and is only recorded in a translated form in the Greek Gospels is not on its own a sufficient reason to doubt that we have a reliable record of what Jesus said.
That is completely true. But the question of the very words of Jesus naturally lead into the question of the reliability of the text of the Gospels itself. And this is the text critical question and this is certainly something with which Williams is thoroughly familiar.
In returning, then, to the question of the trustworthiness of the Gospel text, it is rational to have a high degree of confidence in the text of the Gospels as it appears in modern editions. These editions themselves indicate where uncertainties lie.
And again, that cannot be gainsaid.
The last two chapters bring the argument to its conclusion- contradictions and imaginations. Are there contradictions in the Gospels? And who would make any of the stuff in the Gospels up? Here Williams is probably on the thinnest ice in terms of his overall argument. Some will see contradictions where there are merely theological focuses which differ. Some will think the whole Gospel story is made up because they are unhinged Jesus mythicists and no amount of evidence will ever change their befuddled and confused minds. But in all likelihood Williams has argued well enough to convince people who believe the Gospels can be trusted historically that they aren’t simply operating on wishful thinking.
Nearing his conclusion, Williams observes
Returning to the title of this book, Can We Trust the Gospels?, I would argue that it is rational to do so. Trusting both the message and the history of the Gospels provides a satisfying choice both intellectually and in wider ways.
For my part, I can easily and heartily say that the Gospels are theologically trustworthy. They can be trusted to do what they are intended to do: share a theological message.
Whether or not we have ‘veritas’ in them concerning ‘historia’ I’ll leave to the decision of you, dear reader. Get Pete’s book and give it a charitable read. It deserves such.
She studies genocide! Can I help with that? I have some ideas….
By Tirzah Frank, Editorial Assistant
Ordinarily, I’d write this post about how the Septuagint is important, how the reader’s edition will help students of New Testament Greek expand their Koine horizons, and how excited I personally am for this opportunity to explore more Greek. However, Ross and Lanier have been doing a great job covering the first two, so I’m going to focus on the third. I’ve chosen a brief passage to tackle and discuss. (Is this a poorly disguised excuse to read the Septuagint at work? Maybe.) Lest you think I have an advantage from working on this book, let me be clear: I never got to actually read it. The headings, running heads, apparatus, introduction, and glossary, yes. But not the text.
Selecting the Passage
In their Q&A, Ross and Lanier suggested the Pentateuch, the Historical Books, and Psalms as ideal places for students of…
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The nature of the Greek of the Septuagint has long been debated. Interference from the original Hebrew is present but scholars continue to disagree on its extent and significance. The Greek of the Pentateuch builds on John A. L. Lee’s previous work on the vocabulary of the Pentateuch and its links with documentary texts, while offering a fresh perspective on the field.
This timely and authoritative contribution argues that the language the translators used was fundamentally the Greek of their time and that they had full competence in it.
The volume is divided into seven chapters which proceed through several topics: use of evidence, language variation, educated language, the presence of Greek idiom, the translators’ collaboration, and freedom of choice in dealing with the Hebrew. A final chapter draws conclusions not only about the Pentateuch translators’ knowledge of Greek, but about the translators themselves, their achievement, and their audience. The book presents a wide range of examples, comprising both vocabulary and syntax, from the Septuagint itself, Greek papyri of the period found in Egypt, and Classical and Koine Greek literature.
Where does the ‘religion’ end and the ‘populism’ begin? Ben Ryan speaks of the use of Christianity by populists as ‘Christianism’. Here, as with Islamism, theological depth makes way for a radical vision of society where people are divided into two cultural camps. You’re with us or against us. The challenge for Christians is to wrestle back the narrative from the populists.
Read the whole. With thanks to Richard Goode for the tip.
In case you missed it yesterday:
“Die Zürcher Reformation und ihre Rolle in den europäischen Reformationsbewegungen“
Internationale Tagung an der Theologischen Fakultät
6. bis 8. Februar 2019
Im Januar 2019 jährt sich der Beginn der Zürcher Reformation und damit der Beginn des weltweiten reformierten Protestantismus als Konfessionskultur und als kulturprägende Kraft zum 500. Mal. Es ist ein einzigartiges Ereignis, das einen „Jahrhundertgeburtstag“ feiert: Nie zuvor und nie danach nahm eine in Zürich ihren Anfang nehmende Bewegung einen derart tiefen Einfluss auf weite Teile Europas.
So bildet der Jahresbeginn 2019 einen einmaligen Anlass, in einem Kongress den gegenwärtigen internationalen, wissenschaftlichen For-schungsstand zur Zürcher Reformation zu bündeln, zu dokumentieren und der Forschung neue Impulse zu verleihen. Dabei soll die Zürcher Reformation nicht isoliert betrachtet, sondern ihre Rolle im Rahmen der europäischen Reformationsbewegungen ins Zentrum gestellt werden. Historische, wirkungsgeschichtliche und theologische Aspekte gilt es zu berücksichtigen.
The full program and further details are available here.
This is what happens: