Are the gospel accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ reliable?
That, perhaps, is the central question that every Christian must ask. The accounts in the Gospels are, after all, accounts of the most important events in the Christian faith. As Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 15, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, then we have no hope beyond this life. If that is true, he argues, then we are most to be pitied. The truthfulness of the Gospels is a question that every Christian must consider, which has implications for the validity of faith itself.
Peter Williams of Tyndale House in Cambridge asks this all-important question in his book, Can We Trust the Gospels? His answer is accessible, informative, and helpful to those that are willing to take up and read this concise book.
Given the number of apologetics books on the market that deal with the reliability of Scripture it might seem that Williams’ book would be simply another entry into a crowded field. However, Can We Trust the Gospels? is offers a fresh approach to an enduring question. It is one of those rare popular-level books that caused me not simply to nod along in agreement but to look up and wonder why I had never thought of that before. It is, in short, an important book that will remain useful for decades.
The reliability of Scripture is a well-worn topic, especially in evangelical circles, so many of the chapter topics will appear familiar to the experienced readers. Williams begins the book by asking what non-Christian sources from around the time the Gospels were set say. The basic concern is to see whether historical accounts corroborate the information in the Gospels. As many other writers have noted, there are a number of non-Christian writers whose work supports the historicity of the gospel accounts.
Williams also highlights an argument that is less common among defenders of Christianity: The historical accounts support the rapid spread and increasing popularity of Christianity (with all of its supernatural beliefs). Approximately 30 years after the death of Christ there was a reasonably large population of Christians in Rome, as well as throughout much of the Roman empire. All of them attest to believe similar supernatural ideas about Jesus Christ, which undermines the argument made by some critics of Scripture that ascribing miracles to Jesus and affirming his deity were late revisions of Christianity. That idea simply does not match the historical truths surrounding the spread of Christianity, as attested in hostile, non-Christian witnesses.
In the second chapter, Williams provides evidence that the four Gospels were likely historical documents, written by people close to Jesus. These records were widely disseminated throughout the known world within a century or two of Christ’s death, which is record time for ancient manuscripts. Significantly, this mass distribution and frequent translation occurred before there was a central authority within Christendom to manipulate the message of Scripture, which undermines one of the most common attacks against the historicity of the Gospels.
Further attesting to the truthfulness of the Gospel accounts is the minor details embedded within the books. Williams illuminates many examples in his third chapter. Historical books, especially in the ancient world, that were written by people unfamiliar with the actual places, typical names, and unusual customs of that place and time. The Gospels validate each other by their particularity in geography, which often overlaps, but their differences also support their validity as independent witnesses. The pattern of knowledge and included details supports the authenticity of the Gospels.
In Chapter Four, the book discusses the undesigned coincidences in the Gospels. The books will include the same characters in different scenes, but with the same characteristics. This also includes overlap with non-Christian sources. Williams here provides evidence that either the Gospel authors were corroborating to write realistic fiction or they were telling stories they believed were true from different perspectives. They may have known of each other’s writings, but even if they did, the unity in the diversity is uncanny given the literary genres of the day.
The fifth chapter asks whether the Gospels record Jesus’ actual words. Williams argues that there is good reason to believe that what we have in Scripture is a faithful presentation of Jesus’ actual teaching, not ideas put into his mouth centuries after. They may not be the exact words, since direct quotation was not considered necessary for accuracy in ancient records. However, there are clear signs in the language recorded by the Gospel authors of the authenticity of their recorded speeches.
Chapter Six explores the question of the quality of the manuscripts. Here Williams documents the massive number of available manuscripts and, amazingly, their consistency across languages, regions, and time. Significantly, these factors make the hypothesis that there were major theological changes imposed on the texts highly unlikely.
The seventh chapter is very brief, arguing that there are formal contradictions within the work of Gospel writers. These were often designed, according to Williams, to cause readers to think more deeply about the potential meanings of the words involved. He writes, “These formal contradictions do show that the author is more interested in encouraging people to read deeply than in satisfying those who want to find a fault.”
Chapter Eight is a brief conclusion that sums up the broader arguments. Basically, Williams has been making the argument that it is much more likely that the Gospel accounts are trustworthy accounts of the events surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of a man named Jesus from Nazareth. The logical contortions one must go through to believe that all of the Gospel-stories are just made up to gain control is much more difficult that simply taking the four Gospels, with their miracles and all, at face value.
Williams sets out to show that there are good reasons to believe in the authenticity of the Gospels. He is careful not to claim a cast-iron case. Instead, he shows the credibility of the texts we have today, which is a strong argument for the day.
This book is a welcome addition to the large field of textual apologetics volumes on the market. Can We Trust the Gospels? stands out because it presents different, more nuanced arguments than many other similar texts make. The book is remarkably accessible, carefully nuanced, and well-researched. This should be a vital resource in the libraries of pastors, scholars, and lay-people for generations.