The Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus claim to be historically accurate--but there are lots of skeptics about the historical reliability of the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. Join us as Scott interviews Dr. Peter Williams, one of the leading experts in the world on the historical accuracy of the accounts of the life and times of Jesus.
More About Our Guest
Dr. Peter Williams is Principal of Tyndale House, Cambridge, the leading institution promoting and facilitating conservative biblical scholarship in the world today. He also serves on the faculty of divinity of Cambridge University. He is the author of several books and numerous articles on the biblical languages and the biblical text.
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics, Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. We're here today with our guest, Dr. Pete Williams, who's the principal, or I think in US terms, we say the dean. Or president of a terrific biblical research facility in Cambridge, England known as Tyndale House. It's a wonderful place, a conglomeration of scholars who in various parts of their research, they've come together and it's a community of scholars together. We're delighted you could be with us and thanks so much for taking the time out during this time.
We'd like to talk a little bit about your new book, entitled Can We Trust the Gospels, a really important topic. First of all, tell our listeners a little bit about what Tyndale House is and how you came to be affiliated with it.
Peter Williams: Yeah. Tyndale House in Cambridge began during the second World War and since then has really been at the center of the resurgence of evangelical biblical scholarship. It's our premiere center for coming to research. We don't do degrees. But we support people who do degrees and beyond, and what we really were doing was working at the doctoral level and above. We're trying to raise up world experts who can serve the church wherever. We have about 50 people researching the bible every day in there and that's ... There's no greater conglomeration of bible believing bible experts anywhere in the world.
Scott Rae: You say it's a conglomeration of doctoral students, professors on sabbatical. Do you have people that live there year round for longer stretches?
Peter Williams: People can live there three, four years. And people can come there for a day. But we have, yeah, the biggest cluster of bible believing bible researchers there is anywhere.
Scott Rae: So, after they're done with whatever they're doing at Tyndale House, then they go out to where?
Peter Williams: Typically it will be that people associated with us are producing far more than one book every 10 days. Together. Between everyone. There's a lot of output in scholarship and people can go to the four corners of the globe.
Scott Rae: This is not the time to be modest. What would you say about the impact of Tyndale House on biblical scholarship in the UK and beyond?
Peter Williams: I think it's been very large. But I also bear in mind that Christ taught us not to judge before the end, so Matthew 13 is very clear where the angels who would like to gather up the harvest prematurely are told not to. Paul specifically said he doesn't even judge the effectiveness of his own ministry. And I think that God reserves the knowledge of what is most fruitful for himself so he can tell a certain amount, by their fruits he shall know him. But us trying to judge prematurely what's effective or not, I think it is wrong and what we need to do is judge are we doing what we're called to do by God, God blesses, but for us to sort of compare ourselves with other organizations and say, "This one's more effective than that one," I don't think that's at all appropriate.
Scott Rae: Okay. You would say it's more about faithfulness and we leave the results at the end of the day to God.
Peter Williams: Yeah. We obviously can quantify impact in terms of hundreds of millions, because most of the bible translators who might've been involved in ESV, the NIV, the New Living Translation and so on, many of those have spent time in Tyndale House. When you just look at the print numbers, you can see the big effect. The Japanese bible translation, the Mongolian bible translation. You can list lots and lots of quantifiable impacts. But I think it's when you try and quantify them spiritually, I think you're stepping over a line.
Scott Rae: Our listeners I think will find it very encouraging that there is this conglomeration of evangelical biblical scholars who care deeply about the biblical text and deeply about being faithful to Jesus who are about their work and have a place to do that. I commend you for that work. You have a PhD in Old Testament.
Peter Williams: That's right.
Scott Rae: But you've spent a lot of time as a New Testament lecturer, equal facility in both the biblical languages?
Peter Williams: Yeah, I do both. My undergrad degree was Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic. That was all of those languages to help you read the bible and relating things I've done, early translations, and I find that when I'm looking at how the text has been transmitted over time that's ... We want to check that in multiple languages. So, I use them all whether I'm looking at the old or new testament.
Scott Rae: Okay. What was the impetus behind this new book, Can We Trust the Gospels?
Peter Williams: Can We Trust the Gospels is just a short book. I think it's something like 38,000 words. But I've been thinking about it for 22 years. And I've in fact spoken to hundreds of groups on the subject and I've tried to refine what I'm doing. And what I'm trying to do is fill a niche for books that are small, which can be given out to people who are asking that question, "Are the gospels reliable?" And that includes people who have not read them or know nothing about the subject. One of the things I try and do in this book apart from be brief is to lead people from knowing nothing through a syllabus so that they can actually understand how we know the gospels are reliable without appealing to authority as I do say and giving transparent references so that people can look up things if they want to.
I give references to specific manuscripts, specific libraries where people can check these things out. And I don't think there's been a book trying to occupy that space in recent years. I would hope it will be given out far and wide to people who are just asking that question.
Scott Rae: You've been at this for a long time. What are some of the primary objections that people have to the historical reliability of the gospels?
Peter Williams: I think when you look at objections, some of the objections are coming from ignorance where people haven't really looked in it, the subject, so they're assuming that everything was written much later and could've been changed over time. People liken it to the telephone game and so on. I think it's possible to falsify those ideas and show that the writers have to have some really close up familiarity with the time and place they're writing about and the stories have not been corrupted over time. I think you can show that.
Then there's an objection that the writings can't be trusted because they're biased, because they're written by Christians. And look, I compare the four gospels with what was written about the most famous person in the world at the time, who is obviously the Roman emperor. And we've got more, or at least as much written about Jesus as we have about the Roman emperor, and arguably closer to the time than with the Roman emperor. Overall, I think it stands up very well. People some times say, "Well, don't the gospels contradict each other?" In response to that, I say, "If you look at John's gospel, John actually deliberately some times contradicts itself," that there are fascinating times when Jesus says, "I didn't come to judge the world," he also says, "For judgment, I came into the world." Both are in John's gospel.
And what I think some times people do is they get ... When it comes to biblical contradictions or alleged contradictions, they get into this sort of point scoring mode where the skeptic scores a point by pointing out a problem and apologist tries to respond, but if we're dealing with Jesus who is a great teacher, and who also spoke in parables, which are effectively forms of riddles, why can't he speak in other forms of riddles? Why can't one saying actually be in tension with another saying deliberately because he intended it to?
One of the first things I want to do is just get people to be honest about things, and stop the point scoring about [inaudible] or I can show you've got a point, I've got a point. Forget that. Let's look really honestly at these texts and ask the question, "Can we trust them?" And I think there's lots of signs of trustworthiness in the text. They know the land. They know where the land goes up and down. They know the traveling distance. They know what people are called. They know Judaism. That's really striking, because Christianity moved away from Judaism really quite fast. But the gospels we find are incredibly Jewish in their flavor. Even Luke, which is the least Jewish. It has really deep knowledge of Judaism.
That suggests these things are written at the earliest phase of Christianity, not written a long time after it'd been spreading. These are the sorts of reasons I'd put for trusting.
Scott Rae: Let me bring this scenario to you. Had a conversation with a gentleman from eastern Europe not too long ago who had converted to Christianity from Islam. He's now a doctoral student. I believe he's at Oxford. And he's studying textual criticism in order to be an apologist to Muslims. Textual criticism, I think, has gotten a bad rap as just being this super technical area that doesn't have much relevance to real life and the kinds of things that somebody like him would find important. But he said the first thing that Muslims said to him after he converted to Christ, as he started defending his faith, is that the text of the bible is so corrupt that it can't possibly be trusted.
Just from the point of view of establishing the reliability of the text itself, how would you answer that Muslim criticism as a textual critic?
Peter Williams: I have a chapter on that and I think there are many angles into it. One thing I would say is that the title of the book, Can We Trust the Gospels, is actually deliberate. And some people believe that the Christian needs to prove that there has been no change. And I think that's quite wrong. Because imagine a scenario in which you had a photo of Moses coming down from the mountain with tablets from God. A skeptic could say, "Well, that doesn't prove he didn't falsify them before he came around the corner." In other words, you can never prove that something hasn't changed. But that's proving a negative. You don't have to do that. I think it's rather proving that there's no reason to think that it has changed.
And in fact, you can also go further and say there are lots of reasons to think that there's been huge stability in the text. One example I give is the opening 14 verses of John. You go back to 1516 when those were printed by Erasmus in the first complete printing of the Greek New Testament. Look at every single letter in that and it's no different in lettering for 14 verses, 812 letters, from the edition made by the German Bible Society or indeed the addition we've made at Tyndale House ourselves recently. Even though nowadays, we've got third century manuscripts of that passage and Erasmus only had twelfth century manuscripts of that passage. In other words, our manuscripts are nine centuries earlier than his and we haven't had to change anything.
And if I were really skeptical five centuries ago, I might've said to someone who only had a 12th century manuscript, "How do you know that it didn't get falsified in the 11th or the 10th or the 9th?" And what's happened is even as the gap between the writing of the New Testament and the earliest manuscripts has got smaller and smaller, people's confidence in the New Testament has got less and less. All of which shows that the level of confidence people have bears no relationship to the amount of evidence there is. It's rather ideologically driven and I want to argue that just as reformers rationally trusted that they had a good text, so we can rationally trust that we have a good text now.
Scott Rae: Okay. Even though we still have maybe a couple centuries gap to bridge, all of the evidence in the in between time, the trajectory is set for trusting the reliability.
Peter Williams: And also, what we know is that we can look at manuscripts, and there are some in the second century, and it's a bit like when you audit the finances of a company. You don't need to read every financial record. You just need to go in, look at particular records, and if you find no pattern of corruption, you say, "There doesn't seem to be a pattern of corruption." Now, what skeptics are tending to do is they're tending to agree with believers on the integrity of the text back to the earliest witnesses, and then say, "And just before them, something crazy went on." In other words, they're positing a radical discontinuity in what happened. And I want to say the believer's attitude that says, "Actually, it's more natural to project right the way back" is a simpler hypothesis, is a more natural thing. Can I coerce someone to believe that? No, I can't. I'm not interested in doing that. I'm interested in showing that it is fully rational. In fact, it's the best option to trust the gospels. It's not that God makes evidence so that he will coerce people to believe if they don't want to.
Scott Rae: What about the notion that the New Testament writers, the gospel writers were clearly biased, they were trying to make an explicitly theological point, and they arranged and left out materials to suit their point theologically? Doesn't that speak to some sort of bias that the critics are suggesting?
Peter Williams: There's nothing wrong with bias. If someone accuses you of something you haven't done, you certainly are very motivated to prove your own innocence and do all that. You've got an agenda. Often you will find that people have biases towards particular things, but would we discount all the records about golf because they're written by golf enthusiasts? Why should we discount the records about Jesus because they're written by Jesus enthusiasts? There's no reason to. And the other thing is when you look at these and you say, "Well, they're biased," but do you know other records like the gospels where the prime movers in Christianity come out so bad? The disciples all abandon Jesus. The lead disciple, Peter, abandoned Jesus. It just doesn't make any sense. It would be a very strange form of double bluff bias.
And again, I'm not saying I can prove things. I would argue consistently that trusting the gospels tends to be the simplest explanation, the simplest hypothesis is the one that explains the most with the least second amount of having to add further hypotheses. It's just a very straightforward way of dealing with the data and it explains so much.
Scott Rae: Which makes it, I think, much more plausible than some of the objections. What about the context in which the apostles and the gospel writers wrote down the history of the life of Jesus? It was a context of persecution where it seems to me they had ample opportunity, if they were fabricating some of this, they had ample opportunity to revisit the historical facts that they were writing down. How does the context of persecution that the church endured from the very start, how does that factor into the plausibility of the gospel records?
Peter Williams: I think it's clearly hard to be a Christian. In many ways, it puts you on the edge of Jerusalem Judaism and as you spread out, you don't have a position in the Roman empire. It's not that there's constant persecution all the time. But I do think that obviously people had leisure enough to write some times. But the idea that people are getting into writing about Jesus because there's some material reward for them. That doesn't make a lot of sense. I think clearly people believe in this deeply and that's why they write it up.
The context we can say that whether or not the gospel writers wrote it in the land of Israel or elsewhere, they clearly knew the land well. They knew where it goes up and down. They know about the water bodies. They know what it looks like to the other side of the lake. And these are nontrivial things. If you're going to research them, let's say you're living in Rome or in Turkey or something like this, and you want to write something reliable about little villages in Palestine. It's incredibly tough to do that. You can't look up Strabo. Ptolemy comes along a bit later. You can't look up Pliny the Elder and get enough information to be able to write the gospels. So, they clearly don't get these from any literary sources, all this knowledge of towns and places.
The best way to explain it is that they got it because they either had been in the land or they had really extensive conversations with people who had been there.
Scott Rae: Give us a couple of examples of things that the New Testament, the gospel writers were obviously very familiar with, that might, the average reader of the gospels today might not recognize.
Peter Williams: For instance, in Matthew and Mark, Jesus feats with many tax collectors. And he does it in Copernium. That's an interesting thing and it's only in Matthew and Mark. It's not in Luke and John. But of course, Copernium is on a border. If you're coming either over the lake, Sea of Galilee, from The Decapolis as border, if you're coming over from the Golan, there's a border. That's where you need to put tax collectors, they're collecting toll. In Luke, Jesus has a meal with Zachias in Jericho and Zachias is described as a chief tax collector.
In other words, three's more tax collectors in his area. Now, Jericho's a long way down from Copernium, but it's also on a border. It's also just across the river. You'll be going to the Pyria, the Trans-Jordan there. It's a great place to have toll. In other words, different gospels independently are putting toll collectors exactly where you would need to have toll collectors. These sort of details are not made up. They're just reported. And then there are many things like that where they simply casually report these details as they're going through a story, and you can see they clearly know what it's like to be on the ground.
Scott Rae: And those are things that would be easily caught by somebody who was just as familiar with the land if those were incorrect?
Peter Williams: Yeah. And also if someone was well away from the land and they were just making up stories, they've got no Internet to consult. These things are non-trivial.
Scott Rae: No Google Maps to ...
Peter Williams: No, and even the names they give to people. There are lots of Jews in Rome at the time. The main characteristic of Jewish names in Rome is that they're either in Latin or in Greek. Whereas we can see the gospels have different palliative names for the Jews, which fits Jewish names for Palestine, not Jewish names for Turkey, not Jewish names for Egypt. They fit that land. Exactly that's what we'd expect.
Scott Rae: Okay. Let's summarize some of this evidence. If somebody asks, or they say, "Complete this sentence, I trust the gospels as a historical record because ..." How would you finish that sentence?
Peter Williams: I'd want to say there are many reasons you can come to trust the gospels?
Scott Rae: Because one, two, three, four, just because-
Peter Williams: I think it could be rational to trust the gospels because your mother told you they're trustworthy and your mother's incredibly trustworthy. That's not a historical reason to trust the gospels, but let's remember that human knowledge is basically social. We all learn from each other, even science is just built up on trusting other scientists. Most scientists haven't done a fraction of all the experiments or all the things they believe. So in other words, there's nothing wrong with getting belief from people you've found to be reliable. But obviously, I can go into historical reasons, this is all about historical reason. But you could even go further than the historical reasons in this book, and you could say, "Look, we have the whole message about Jesus that makes sense in have. We have ... " I mean, who would make up Jesus? You have the genius of his parables and for instance, his saying of the Golden Rule, "Do unto others what you'd have them do to you," which is a clearer annunciation of an ethic to live by than anyone's come up to up to that point. Now either Jesus said that, or he had brilliant disciples who came up with brilliant ideas and then credited him with it. Going down the scenario that he has brilliant disciples who come up with great stories like parables, great teachings like the Golden Rule, and then credit him with is ... You will end up positing multiple geniuses. Whereas if you just say, "He came up with them," you only have to posit one genius. It's a simpler hypothesis.
All of these things start cohering, they start making sense. I think we're just surrounded by mountains of evidence for why to trust the gospels. I've just got a very brief book here. And it's just the first taste. I hope people will go on from this to read some of the longer books by Craig Blomberg and [inaudible] and others who go into more detail on these issues.
Scott Rae: Let me ask one other question just on the reliability of the gospel writers. They didn't have cameras, audio tape, digital recordings, anything like that. They trusted their memory for a lot of this. We don't live in a memory culture, so for us, the idea that we could have a fairly exact recollection of something that took place months ago, or that we could memorize large blocks of somebody's teaching or saying, we don't have categories for that today. I take it that was much more common in the first century and there's no ... There's no reason to mistrust the memory of the disciples. Sort of very different than how we would tend to trust somebody's memory today.
Peter Williams: I think we need to start with what a disciple is. Disciple is simply the word to mean student of a rabbi. Jesus is described as a teacher and a rabbi throughout the gospels. Here we have a group of 12 people whose main job it is to learn everything he says. That's what they do. All the time, and you can see these discussions in the gospels where they're discussing something he's just said as they're walking along. This is what they're supposed to do. The idea that it all simply gets lost doesn't make a lot of sense. They'd have to be monumentally incompetent as students. And the end of Matthew's gospel, Jesus says, "Go and make disciples," IE students of all the world.
In other words, there's a huge emphasis on teaching. Jesus goes round constantly teaching. So, the idea that none of this got passed on doesn't make a lot of sense.
Scott Rae: Okay. Tell our listeners a little bit about how this research into the reliability of the gospels has impacted you spiritually.
Peter Williams: I think for me, one of the really spiritually pleasurable things about this is the way the book came together without having to be forced. As I investigated the best ways to put arguments for the reliability of the New Testament, I wasn't having to shoehorn arguments, twist them round, find ways of making it plausible. Actually, it was just for me a wonderful testament to God's goodness that again and again I was coming to the simplest explanation for all of the data will be trusted. I would just testify that trusting God is a very rational thing to do. Humans don't have an option of not trusting anyone. Not trusting anyone, you would die very soon because you wouldn't trust your food suppliers or anything like that. We're social creatures and we trust.
And when the New Testament invites us to trust Christ and trust God as a character, we are already equipped to judge between trustworthy and untrustworthy characters. We do that all the time. We're not being asked to do something we've never been trained for before. Actually, it's something we know about and therefore, I think something that we are very responsible to do that we have to respond and say, "Yes, this character Jesus is trustworthy."
Scott Rae: Okay. One final question. We live in a culture today that's largely what I would call a post truth culture where the value of historical evidence is like this, is some times called into question. Are you finding that the people you talk to about the reliability of the gospels, that the question matters to them? I'm sort of asking, what's the apologetic value that you've found from this?
Peter Williams: I don't think it matters to everyone. I think some people are much more existentially built where they're concerned about the practicalities for them. But people are not relativistic about their paychecks. So, this idea that people can be completely relativistic, it doesn't work. And I think people realize that testimony is a very, very important thing when you're talking about sexual harassment cases and these sort of things. Testimony becomes absolutely vital. The question, "Is this person telling me the truth?" Questioning people at work, "Are they telling me the truth about what the plans are or whether my job's secure?" This is absolutely vital.
People may or may not be interested in God. Some people are more interested in themselves than in God. My argument would be we should all be interested in this. Also, there are some types of people who will accept Christianity based on the message, based on the experience, the transformation of God and the light. But there will be some people who really do need to work through specific problems before they can. They need to know it's true truth, it's about the real world, that it's rationally coherent. And so this is a book for those sort of people. It's also a book for Christians who just want to be more confident in their faith. It's also a book for non Christians, I hope it can be used widely in discussing with people.
Scott Rae: That makes sense that there's such an emphasis on eyewitness testimony in the gospels because of that trustworthiness. We so appreciate your work on this, it's a major contribution to the plausibility structure that people need for their heart to be able to rejoice and what their mind also finds plausible and compelling. The book is Can You Trust the Gospels, Dr. Pete Williams, principal of Tyndale House at Cambridge. Thanks so much for being with us.
Peter Williams: Great to be here.
Scott Rae: Really good stuff.
Peter Williams: Thank you.
Scott Rae: Thanks. This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Dr. Peter Williams, to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/ThinkBiblically. That's biola.edu/ThinkBiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation with Dr. Williams, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.