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Can We Trust The Gospels?

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Posted by Angus Macleay, 15 May 2020

Angus Macleay reviews Peter Williams' book on the evidence for the reliability of the biblical gospel books.

Peter J. Williams is the principal of Tyndale House, Cambridge. Whilst being a respected evangelical scholar who works diligently on the text of the New Testament, he is also a man with a passion for communicating confidence in the Gospels to both Christians and unbelievers. His latest book, Can we trust the Gospels?, marries these interests together. There is lucid scholarship, plenty of assistance to the Christian and carefully marshalled arguments to engage with the non-Christian, and all written in a simple, accessible style.

The author lays a foundation by examining the non-Christian source material found in Tacitus, Pliny and Josephus. It may be familiar ground to most pastors but it’s definitely worth including for the average non-Christian who has been sold the story that the gospels are all “fake news.” However, what was far less familiar territory for me was the enormously helpful chapter, “Did the Gospel authors know their stuff?” Williams carefully highlights all sorts of details relating to local geographical knowledge, use of Jewish names and other aspects of Jewish first century life which highlight that the Gospels simply could not have been written later and from a different culture. Only someone who lived in Palestine at that time, or at least engaged with eyewitnesses who lived there, would know which were the most common Jewish names, since these differed considerably from the common Jewish names found in other parts of the Mediterranean such as Egypt. Interestingly Williams builds on the research of Richard Bauckham in highlighting the issue of “disambiguation” in the gospels—the practice of giving an extra descriptor to a common name to avoid ambiguity. Personally I found this the strongest and most helpful chapter, highlighting some of the details which we often skim over but which actually provide helpful evidence of the authenticity of the Gospels.

The chapter on “undesigned coincidences” reveals when two gospels shed light on each other and therefore provide further proof of the accuracy of both. There is also a helpful chapter on whether the text of the gospels has changed at all and this enables Williams to link in with some of the work that Tyndale House has recently done in this area. The penultimate chapter on the issue of contradictions could have been stronger. The author has chosen simply to look at various paradoxes in John’s gospel whereas other passages supposed to reveal contradictions could have been tackled. However, this would have made the book longer and so perhaps to make the work as accessible as possible only one aspect of this issue was covered.

All in all this is a really helpful resource both for Christians and non-Christians alike. Reading it will build confidence in the believer, strengthening their faith in the Christ revealed in the Gospels. For the non-Christian it will help to establish the plausibility of the Gospels as worth investigating further since they point to our Lord Jesus. This is definitely an important resource for the pastor to be able to pass on to others and to make available on the church bookstall. I warmly commend it.

Angus MacLeay
Rector, St Nicholas Church, Sevenoaks

Angus Macleay is Rector of St Nicholas's Church, Sevenoaks.

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