Updated: Nov 21, 2020
In today’s episode, Jon looks at the information found in the New Testament that supports that these books were written by people during that time, in those places, and who actually observed those events!
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Last time we continued examining the New Testament books to see whether they are eyewitness testimonies. The first thing we noticed is that the New Testament books themselves do have claims within them to be the testimonies of the eyewitnesses, and then secondly we saw that those in the generations immediately following the New Testament authors always thought these books were written by the people who have their names on them. So Matthew was actually written by Matthew, and so on. In fact, no one ever so much as questioned whether these books were in fact written by those people. Today, we’re going to continue this examination. Rather than looking at explicit claims to being eyewitness testimony, we’re going to look at some of the information found within the New Testament that gives us good reason to think these books were written by people during that time, in those places, and who actually observed these events. We’ll do this by looking at the names of people and places that we find in the New Testament books. Now that might sound incredibly boring, I know I always found names, dates, and places to be a snore-fest, but as I looked into it more, I got really caught up in this argument, and I actually found it one of the more interesting things I’ve read recently.
Suppose for a moment I were to ask you to write a story for me. Imagine the setting of the story is Mexico, during the 1800s. Now that might make you a little nervous, because you likely don’t know too much about that setting. Right from the get-go, you’re probably going to focus a lot more on the content of the story, rather than on the details of the setting, because you’re not too familiar with the setting. That’s because you probably have never lived in Mexico, and you certainly haven’t lived during the 1800s, and I checked, and I don’t believe there’s even one person still alive today that was born in the 1800s. Now as you write this story for me, what names are you going to use? The characters will have names, and they obviously live in certain cities, so what names will you give your characters, and what names will you give your cities and towns? Bear in mind for a moment that this is only a little over a hundred years ago, and, if you live in Canada or the States, it’s only a little south of you! That said, you most likely can’t name even five cities in Mexico, and aside from “Francisco”, you probably don’t know many popular Mexican names at all, nonetheless those that were popular a hundred years ago. That’s not surprising, because you’re not from that setting, and you likely have next to no understanding of that context. If you were to guess, and give the characters whatever names you felt like, the results would be entirely random.
Suppose now, I were to do the research, and gather a huge list of all the names of people in Mexico during the 1800s, and I were to compile them, and figure out which were the most popular names for males and females, and even figure out what percentage of the population had those names. Now, suppose I take all the names from the story you wrote for me. What sort of chances do you think your story would have of the names you used matching up with the names actually given to people, down to even being quite close in terms of the percentages? Obviously you would have no chance at all. Even if you knew I was going to evaluate things this way, you still wouldn’t have been able to do it.
To make matters worse, suppose I were to ask you to give a list of the most popular names, during your childhood, in your own province or state! This actually is your context, you lived in that place, during that time, and yet, you’re still only working from a small sample size, and you’re probably going to be quite a bit off, in terms of the percentages of what names were popular. Perhaps you knew a whole bunch of girls named Cindy when you grew up, so you assumed it was the most popular name in that area during that time, but, as it turns out, it didn’t make the list of most popular names. Even if you knew I wanted the most popular names, and even if we assume your own context, it would still be next to impossible to correctly guess which names were most popular.
Now, why in the world did I go into all this? Let’s apply this to the New Testament, and see what it shows us. Scholars have done research into the names used in Jesus’ historical context, of His time and location. They did this by looking at other ancient historical texts, like Josephus, and by looking at things like the Dead Sea Scrolls, and rabbinic texts. They also did this by examining ossuaries and tombs, basically, finding the places where they kept all the dead people, which were named, in the same way we use tombstones, and checked all the names. With this compiled list of names from various ancient sources, scholars have been able to figure out which names were the most popular, and even figure out rough percentages of exactly how popular each name was in that setting. In other words, we know, by very meticulous research, not only which names were popular in the time and location of Jesus, but we even know it down to the percentages of the population that had those names. If you’re interested in all the "knitty gritty" details of the research, you can check out Richard Bauckham’s book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.
The interesting point is this, the New Testament documents includes a lot of names, actually. This alone makes people think it’s written by people who were present for the events they describe, because they give so much detail. However, we can even fact check all these details, to see if they match up with what we learn through the scholarly research into names, and guess what, it matches incredibly well. Out of all the names used in the New Testament, when calculating the percentages of the usage of those names, they match quite closely with what we would expect in terms of popularity of those names, given the research. As an example of this research, the two most popular names during that time were Simon and Joseph. From the research, it seems that 15.6% of Palestinian Jewish men in that context had one of those two names. When looking at the books of the Gospels and Acts, we find that 18.2% of the men had one of those two names. That’s quite close, and couldn’t possibly happen by pure chance. When looking at the nine most popular in that time and place, about 41.5% of Palestinian Jewish men had one of those nine names, while we see 40.3% of the men in the Gospels and Acts had one of those names. Again, very close, 41.5 vs 40.3. The percentages lining up so well like this shows the authors of these books were actually referring to real individuals. Again, if someone were to merely guess, and made up these stories and these characters, their guesses would be wildly incorrect, and not match the data. The fact that the data matches incredibly closely between the data found through the research as to the popularity of names, and the names given to characters in the New Testament, shows us that these New Testament documents are describing real people, and this obviously gives credibility to the narrative.
Again, if I were to invent a story, and pick names for my characters, there’s no way I could guess the popularity of names in my context, and include all the names in their proper percentages, each being represented fairly. I tried this out, personally, given my context, just for fun. I guessed that names like Matthew, Joshua, Christina, and Lindsey, were the most popular names, given what I experienced in my childhood context. I looked into it a little bit, and found out that the popular names were actually quite different; they were Joseph, Shaun, Brittany, and Madison, which goes quite against my person experience, but that’s what the research showed. Even if I’m trying to guess the most popular names, and even if it’s in my own context, I was still wrong. The fact that the New Testament is so close to given proper representations of which names were popular, shows us that the New Testament writers were not only a part of that context, living in that time and place, but that they’re actually describing real people’s names.
As we look further, it actually gets even more interesting. When you were growing up, in your classroom during elementary school, did you have two kids that had the same name? If you did, you probably used some kind of qualifier when referring to them, so the other people knew who you were speaking about. For example, if there were two Jordans in your class, you might refer to one by his last name, so that there would be no confusion. Or you might use some kind of trait one has in order to qualify them, like “big Jordan”, or something like that. This probably even became popular in your class, where everyone did it, so that you all knew, in your context, which person you were referring to. This is true for me personally, since I have a popular name, Jon, where I’ve actually been referred to by my full name, or just my last name, in most of my contexts. People naturally know Jon is a popular name, so, without even thinking about it, they give my name a qualifier.
If we look to the New Testament, we notice there are quite a few cases where a person’s name is given a qualifier. So for example, when referring to “Simon”, qualifiers are given, because “Simon” was one of the most popular names. There was Simon Peter, Simon the brother of Jesus, Simon the leper, Simon of Cyrene, Simon the magician, and so on. Quite often, given the context, you find qualifiers to help understand which Simon is being referred to. Now where this gets quite interesting, is that the New Testament uses qualifiers to help disambiguate people with popular names, but it doesn’t use qualifiers when the people’s names aren’t popular. In other words, the writers of the New Testament subconsciously knew which names were popular, thus requiring qualifiers, and which weren’t, thus not needing qualifiers. Not only that, but which names are popular, and needing qualifiers, would only apply to that specific context of time and location, and wouldn’t make sense in other contexts. For example, names like Simon, Judas, Matthew, and James, were quite common in Palestine in the first century, and thus, get qualifiers. However, if you were to take these same names, and apply them in a context like Egypt, they wouldn’t be popular, and wouldn’t need qualifiers. Then, when we see uncommon names, like Thaddeus, Bartholomew, Philip, and Thomas, they don’t get qualifiers. The fact that the New Testament authors use qualifiers when appropriate, and don’t use them when it wouldn’t be appropriate, again shows us that they had direct access to the context, and gives us even more reason to think they are legitimate cases of eyewitness testimony.
Another interesting point is that the name “Jesus” was itself quite a popular name during that time. When reading the New Testament, the point that’s quite intriguing is that Jesus gets a qualifier, for example, calling Him “Jesus of Nazareth”, but this type of qualifier only appears when the person talking isn’t familiar with Jesus. So for example, when the man with an unclear spirit talks to Jesus, he refers to Him as “Jesus of Nazareth”. Or when Philip was telling his brother Nathaniel about Jesus, he called Him “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph”, giving Jesus two qualifiers, where he was from, and whose son he was. However, all throughout the narrative, it constantly refers to Jesus plainly by His name, because the people writing these books were familiar with Jesus. So we find qualifiers where it would make sense to find them, and we don’t find qualifiers where it wouldn’t make sense to have them because it was personal.
We also find this sort of thing when we look into the locations given in the New Testament. We find the authors of the New Testament making off-handed comments about very detailed and specific features of the land, which wouldn’t have been known by them, unless they were actually from that area. Peter Williams, a scholar in this area, wrote that in order for the New Testament writers to write the way they did, "You would have to investigate its architecture, culture, economics, geography, language, law, politics, religion, social stratification, weather, and much more. You would even need to ensure that the characters in your tale were given names that were plausible for the historical and geographical setting of your narrative." In other words, you would have to do extensive research in order to give all these little details accurately, and the New Testament writers give tons of these details, most often in an off-hand sort of way. The more probable explanation is that they were eyewitnesses that were familiar with the area, because they actually did walk with Jesus through His ministry.
As an example of how this would work out, again, let’s assume I’ve asked you to write me a story. Again, you probably can’t name even five cities in Mexico. Personally, I doubt I can name two. Even if I take something closer to home for me, since I’m Canadian, like the province of British Columbia, I still couldn’t name very many cities, and I’ve even been there! However, I could name a lot of different places from where I grew up and currently live, which is Ontario. I could give you a great deal of names of cities, parks you could go to, lakes, waterfalls, fun places to visit, et cetera. This is because this is the area I’m familiar with. When we look at the New Testament, the authors give incredible detail of all sorts of different places, some of which are extremely small and unheard of, which just wouldn’t have been known to anyone who didn’t live in that immediate context. Some examples are places like Golgatha, Gethsemane, Bethany, Bethphage, Sychar, and so on. Some of these might sound familiar to us now, but they’re quite small locations that no one would know, unless they were intimately familiar with the area. For example, for people in the area I grew up in, Morning Star Mill is a fun place to go for a hike, and many know of it. However, you could even visit my hometown, and even live there for a few years, and not know of this location. If you’re familiar with Morning Star Mill, I can be pretty much guarantee you’re familiar with the area, likely because you grew up there, or, you knew someone who grew up there, and they introduced you to that little spot.
We also find nicknames and familiarity with some places. For example, we find from ancient literature that the “Sea of Galilee” was merely referred to as “the sea” by the locals. If you weren’t from the area, you would refer to it as “the sea of Galilee”, but if you were from the area, because you’re so familiar with it, you’d just call it “the sea”. We then find that, when appropriate, the New Testament refers to it as “the sea”, because the writers were familiar with that area, again, showing they’re legitimate cases of people who actually lived in that area during that time. For an example of this, my hometown is St. Catharines, but the locals often refer to it as “St. Kitts”. If someone calls my hometown by that name, I then know that they’re actually familiar with the area, because they’re aware of these little nuances.
Another way all this data ends up getting really interesting is when we look at non-biblical sources. Often times, people who are critical of the New Testament try to paint the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as being just four of many Gospels. They bring up cases like the Gospel of Judas, or Philip, or Thomas, and they try to make the argument that these Gospels are just as good, or even better, than the Gospels we find in the Bible. However, when we look at the names of people and locations in these books, there’s a stark difference between them and the New Testament books. For example, Gospels like Thomas, Philip, and Judith, do not contain anywhere close to as much geographical information. This is because these books were written much later, by people not from that area, and who weren’t involved in the events! Thomas mentions Judea once, and names no other locations. The Gospel of Philip names Jerusalem four times, and then Nazareth and Jordan once each. And the Gospel of Judas doesn’t name any locations! So we find the only references are to very well-known places, which would be quite unimpressive to insert into the narrative. Compare that to the Gospels, and they are overwhelmingly more detailed in this way, again, showing the authors were intimately well acquainted with the setting and context, because they were eyewitnesses.
When we look at the names of people in these books, we once again are shown the New Testament books are quite different. The Gospel of Mary is quite early, but only gives a very small amount of names, and doesn’t give any qualifier for Mary (which was a popular name at the time). It doesn’t even qualify which Mary the book is supposedly from! It also doesn’t actually give the name of Jesus, only referring to Him as “the savior”, which was quite a late development. The Gospel of Judas is also quite early, but it only gives two legitimate names, Judas and Jesus! All the other names in the book aren’t even Palestinian, which seems to make a good argument that the person who wrote the book wasn’t familiar with the area, seeing as they didn’t even know any popular names for that setting. The Gospel of Thomas is probably the most well informed, and earliest, but even then it only gives seven names. In these cases of books outside of the New Testament, it seems quite obvious that they came a good bit later, once Christianity had gained some popularity, and that the authors of these books were trying to jump on the bandwagon, and write books that they hoped would get popular. They used famous names for their titles, but then, when we actually look at the content of the books, it becomes quite apparent that the authors had next to know familiarity with the immediate context, and were certainly not eyewitnesses. Again, compare this to the books of the New Testament, and you have an overwhelming difference, not only in quantity, and also in quality. The New Testament books gives many names, locations, and details, all of which match that setting, and are appropriate for the context.
The data we’ve looked at today shows us that the writers of the New Testament were quite obviously very familiar with the area, lived during that time, and were in the exact time and location of Jesus’ ministry. They were in the exact spot where it would make perfect sense that they actually were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry. The fact that they then claim to be eyewitnesses makes sense. In fact, it becomes very difficult to explain all of this data if they WEREN’T eyewitnesses. You end up having to create an elaborate conspiracy theory to explain everything, because the writers clearly had direct knowledge to the period of time, the locations, specific people involved, and all of their accounts line up with the geography and history we have available to us. The accounts are so detailed, and accurate, with obscure information not readily available, that it seems quite obvious the New Testament writers really were eyewitnesses.
Next time, we’ll wrap up our examination of eyewitness testimony by taking a look at some of the apparent contradictions in the testimonies, and seeing whether we have further reason to believe the New Testament. So I hope that you’ll join me next time, on the Ultimate Questions Podcast, from Power to Change – Students.