Peter Williams, Principal of Tyndale House (Cambridge), demonstrates his extensive scholarship throughout Can We Trust the Gospels? yet makes it easy for the uninformed reader to follow his argument. Not intended for the expert in Gospel criticism, this volume addresses those inquiring into the matter of the reliability of the canonical Gospels for the first time. While the mainline media frequently give voice to theories denying their truthfulness, few in their audience are familiar with the actual evidence and methodological issues involved in the debate.
Williams makes his purpose clear: he does not set out to prove that the Gospels are true, but seeks to demonstrate that they are trust-worthy. Before one can consider the (extraordinary) claims made by the Gospels concerning Jesus, one must first “ask whether the Gospels show the signs of trustworthiness we usually look for in things we believe” (p. 16). This he does by building a cumulative case in eight chapters.
Noting that the Gospels’ reliability has been questioned on the grounds that they were written by devotees commending their faith, Williams begins by looking at what three prominent first and second century non-Christians say about it: Cornelius Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Flavius Josephus. Strikingly, their writings report many core facts and beliefs found in the Gospels, giving evidence that these are original, not later developments, as contemporary critics often claim.
Williams then assesses the Gospels from an historiographical point of view. He notes that all serious historians of antiquity recognize the canonical Gospels as being the oldest and best sources we possess concerning Jesus. Their extant textual evidence outstrips even that which is available for a Roman emperor like Tiberius.
The next logical step in the argument is to demonstrate the factual reliability of the Evangelists, examining a diversity of data including: geography, personal names, local flavor, dating, botanical terms, tax references, local languages, and unusual customs. The Gospel writers show themselves to be competent and knowledgeable in those matters.
Williams then looks at four sets of “undesigned coincidences,” in which different authors confirm each other’s narrative in ways that cannot be intentional, because they are too subtle or indirect for most readers even to notice. Three of these occur among the various Gospels, and the fourth between the Synoptics and Josephus.
Asking whether we have access to Jesus’s own words, and noting that Jesus is depicted as a Jewish teacher, Williams shows how the Gospels reflect ancient pedagogical practices meant to facilitate memorization. Moreover, striking teachings like the “golden rule” are more likely to originate from one genius than several independent ones.
Considering the matter of textual transmission, Williams reminds the reader that medieval (Christian) scribes were generally both competent and careful, which accounts for our ability to read ancient (pagan) authors today. With very few disputed verses, the vast majority of the Gospels’ textual tradition is cohesive, corroborating its trustworthiness.
Addressing perceived contradictions, Williams notes that the variations we find among the Gospels show their independence and the fact that the authors (and the church tradition) did not try to harmonize them by forcibly ironing out apparent problems. Before claiming conflict between differing Gospel accounts, one should make sure to understand each one correctly.
Finally, Williams deploys the age-old argument, “Who would make this up?” There are many particulars in the Gospels that are best explained (“simplest explanation”) as faithful reports rather than inventions (“complex explanations). This includes “embarrassing” elements (crucifixion, disciples’ lack of understanding, etc.). The hardest to believe in the Gospels for the modern man is the presence of so many miracles. Since miracles are impossible, they must be untrustworthy reports, so the argument goes. As Williams points out, the problem here is that the premise generates the conclusion. The fact, however, is that the simplest explanation, though not the only one, is that Jesus actually was who he claimed to be according to the Gospels.
Having worked through these various arguments, Williams includes a short discussion on presuppositions and how they control the way one evaluates and explains the “evidence.” Though essentially evidentialist in nature, his apologetic method is somewhat eclectic. Making much of the idea that the “simplest explanation” is more “likely,” he sets out to argue for the warranted (rational) nature of belief in the Gospel records, relying heavily on “everyday” common sense. His argument thus focuses on purported common ground shared with unbelievers, in order to foster consideration of the claims the unconvinced naturally would doubt or question—and thus read the Gospels and be confronted by Christ’s claims on their lives.
The main tactical problem with this type of argument is that it depends upon an essentially subjective value judgment, plausibility. This, however, is the very point where presuppositions and individual sensitivities keep believers and unbelievers apart. Williams, to be sure, is not epistemologically naïve, but one wonders if he might not underestimate the power of the “noetic effect of sin” (Rom 1), as well as our contemporaries’ instinctive skepticism fueled by the “conspiracy theories” peddled by the Da Vinci Code and its pseudo-scientific ilk.
This being said, nonspecialist readers of all apologetic schools will find in this book—conveniently gathered in one place—much material they can use profitably when evangelizing, and when comforting curious or troubled believers.