The Historical Reliability of the Gospel Traditions

Richard Bauckham, a biblical scholar at Cambridge, advances a fascinating argument concerning the names used in the gospels. Here is a graphic I created to summarize the argument:

Sometimes critics misunderstand Bauckham to be making the following argument: the gospels must be historically accurate because they use common names. As the critics point out, this is not a very good argument! A novel might use common names, but that does not mean that the characters in the novel are real people who actually existed.

What these critics misunderstand is that the rare names are just as important in Bauckham's argument as the common names. The key point is not the presence of common names but the percentage of common names. Suppose, for example, that I was going to write a novel set on the Navajo Nation. Now I grew up on the Navajo Nation, so I know that the surnames Begay and Yazzie are very common. However, even having grown up on the Navajo Nation, I have no idea what percentage of the population bears one of these two names. Is it 10%, 20%, 30%? I have no clue. It would be difficult for me to nail the percentage just right without having access to statistical data. But this only scratches the surface of the problem. Suppose that instead of writing a novel, I was merely collecting a diverse group of stories written by different novelists who were not in communication with one another. In such a scenario, it would be remarkable if all of these authors just happened to choose fictional names which, when combined together, matched the actual pattern of names on the Navajo Nation. What the table shows is that when you put together all of the various stories found in the gospels, the names match the documented pattern of names in Palestine. This phenomenon is difficult to explain if the stories collected in the gospels are predominantly legends which were invented by different people at different times in different places. On the other hand, the data aligns perfectly with the theory that the stories collected in the gospels involve real people who actually lived in first-century Palestine.

Looking for a way to keep up your Greek or Hebrew? Daily Greek and Hebrew uses simple multiple-choice quizzes to guide you through the analysis and translation of one verse every day. Click on the image below to get started!