What can Roman inscriptions tell us about the reliability of the Gospels?

I recently stumbled across some data from ancient Roman inscriptions that supports Richard Bauckham's fascinating argument concerning the names used in the Gospels.(1) In this post, I will summarize this argument and explain how the Roman data supports it.


Jewish Names in Palestine


In 2002, the historian Tal Ilan published "a collection of all the recorded names used by the Jews of Palestine" from 330 BC to AD 200.(2) These names were obtained from diverse sources including ossuary inscriptions, letters, and the writings of Josephus (a first-century Jewish historian). While Ilan's sources span the time period given above, "the vast bulk of the data comes from 50 BC to AD 135."(3) This database, moreover, is quite extensive. On Bauckham's reckoning, it contains 2,953 occurrences of 521 names.


Using this database, Bauckham first identifies the nine most popular male names: (1) Simon/Simeon; (2) Joseph/Joses; (3) Lazarus/Eleazar; (4) Judas/Judah; (5) John/Yohanan; (6) Jesus/Joshua; (7) ​Ananias/Hananiah; (8) Jonathan; (9) Matthew/Matthias/Mattathias. Bauckham then makes a fascinating comparison between the pattern of names found in the database and the pattern of names found in the Gospels and Acts. In the database of Palestinian names, ​15.6% of men have one of the two most popular names (i.e. Simon or Joseph), and 41.5% have one of the nine most popular names. Similarly, of the 77 Palestinian Jewish men who are named in the Gospels and Acts, 18.2% have one of the two most popular names, and 40.3% have one of the nine most popular names.


Now what is the significance of this striking correlation? Before we answer this question, let us first turn to consider some data from Rome.


Jewish Names in Rome


In an article entitled, "The Names of the Jews of Ancient Rome," the classicist Harry Joshua Leon lists the names of 517 Jewish persons mentioned in ancient Roman inscriptions. Of these persons, 313 are male and 204 are female.(4) When I searched Leon's catalogue for the nine names listed above, I found only one occurrence of Simon, four of Joses, ten of Judas, and two of Jonathan.(5) Leon also notes that the name Ειμων, which occurs only once, may "possibly" be a strange spelling of Simon (Σιμων). Including this possible second occurrence of Simon, we end up with the two percentages shown in the table below.

Database of Palestinian Jewish Names

Palestinian Jews Named in the Gospels and Acts

Jews Named in Roman Inscriptions

​Percentage of men bearing one of the two most popular names

​15.6%

​18.2%

​1.9%

​Percentage of men bearing one of the nine most popular names

41.5%

​40.3%

​5.8%

In his study, Bauckham already noted that the pattern of Jewish names in the Diaspora differs from the pattern of Jewish names in Palestine. The Roman data summarized above simply underscores this point.


So what is the significance of all these numbers? How do they impact our assessment of the historical reliability of the Gospels? It is to this question that we now turn.


Significance of This Data


On the traditional view, the stories collected in the Gospels originated with eyewitnesses and were faithfully transmitted by the early Christian community (cf. Luke 1:1-4). On the skeptical view, these stories arose through a process of free invention and embellishment as Christianity spread throughout the Roman world.


The skeptical view, however, faces some significant challenges. Jesus died around AD 30, and most scholars date the first Gospel (Mark) to about AD 70. The last Gospel (John) is typically dated to the 90s. Thus the Gospels were written within living memory of Jesus. Moreover, in the decades after Jesus died, we know that the eyewitnesses were active and influential in the church. For example, the undisputed letters of Paul, written in the 50s, reveal that Peter travelled to Antioch (Gal 2:11-12) and was influential in Corinth (1 Cor 1:12). The unrestrained embellishment of Jesus traditions seems unlikely in such an environment. Furthermore, in sharp contrast to the later apocryphal Gospels, the canonical Gospels often demonstrate a precise knowledge of the geography, customs, and religion of first-century Palestine. (See my previous post for more on this point.)


The data outlined above concerning names constitutes yet another challenge to the skeptical view. Some stories in the Gospels and Acts use rare names (e.g. blind Bartimaeus); others use common names (e.g. Simon the leper). Nevertheless, when all of the various stories are put together, the pattern of names that emerges matches the documented pattern of Jewish names in Palestine. How could this have been achieved if the stories were invented at different times by different people in different places?


If the pattern of Jewish names was uniform across the Roman Empire, one might suppose that the correlation shown in the table above would have been achieved if the Christian storytellers simply took names for their fictional characters from real Jews whom they knew. However, as the epigraphic data from Rome illustrates, the pattern of Jewish names was certainly not uniform across the Empire.


Note also that the correlation shown in the table could not have been achieved even on the absurd hypothesis that every storyteller had both the ability and the initiative to research the pattern of Jewish names in Palestine. This is because the correlation is not with the individual stories, or even with the individual Gospels, but rather with all of the stories put together. The individual storytellers would not only need to research the pattern of names in Palestine; they would also need to coordinate with all of the other storytellers to ensure that the final collection had the right percentages. Such a scenario is, of course, ludicrous. It is therefore difficult to escape Bauckham's conclusion: "All the evidence indicates the general authenticity of the personal names in the Gospels."


Now the Christian apologist must be careful not to overstate the significance of Bauckham's numbers. Proving the authenticity of the personal names in a narrative does not prove the accuracy of the entire narrative. Nevertheless, if the Gospels are shown to be generally reliable in those details which can be checked, we have reason to doubt that those details which cannot be checked are mere fabrications.


 

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