Are the Gospels Based on Eyewitness Testimony? The Test of Personal Names

Are the gospels based on credible eyewitness testimony? This is a question on which modern scholars line up on both sides of the divide. From my point of view, the cumulative case for the gospels being based on the testimony of eyewitnesses is clear and convincing. In his groundbreaking work, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Richard Bauckham (professor of New Testament studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland) lays out an array of compelling evidence for the trustworthiness of the gospels. Among them is the test of personal names, which is covered in chapters 3 and 4 of the book. What he finds is that there is a remarkable correlation between the frequency of names found in the Gospels and Acts and the frequency of names found in writings outside the New Testament. This argument is also developed by Peter Williams, of Tyndale House in Cambridge, in on of his lectures.

The top 2 men’s names (Simon and Joseph) in first century Palestine outside the New Testament have a frequency of 15.6%. The frequency of those two names in the gospels and Acts is 18.2%. The frequency of the top 9 men’s names outside the New Testament is 41.5%; whereas the frequency in the Gospels and Acts is 40.3%. The frequency of the top two women’s names (Mary and Salome) outside the New Testament is 28.6%; the frequency in the Gospels and Acts is 38.9%. The frequency of the top 9 women’s names outside the New Testament is 49.7%; and 61.1% in the Gospels and Acts.

The top 6 male names in first century Palestine are:

1) Simon/Simeon
2) Joseph/Joses
3) Lazarus/Eleazar
4) Judas/Judah
5) John/Yohanan
6) Jesus/Joshua

The frequency of New Testament individuals with those names is 8, 6, 1, 5, 5 and 2 respectively. We can see, therefore, that there exists a remarkable correlation between first century Palestinian names outside and inside the New Testament. What is especially remarkable about this is that the rankings of names in Palestine does not correspond with the rankings of those names in other regions. For example, the rankings of names in Egypt during that period are:

1) Eleazar (ranked 3rd in Palestine)
2) Sabbataius (ranked 68= in Palestine)
3) Joseph (ranked 2 in Palestine)
4=) Dositheus (ranked 16 in Palestine)
4=) Pappus (ranked 39= in Palestine)
6=) Ptolemaius (ranked 50= in Palestine)
6=) Samuel (ranked 23 in Palestine)

Such a correlation clearly suggests a close connection to the time and place (first century Palestine) in which the events that the gospels narrate unfolded. Curiously, this contrasts strikingly with the second century apocryphal gospels in which such a correlation is not borne out. Furthermore, even if a writer does have a close connection to the time and place of the events that they narrate, one’s intuition with regards the rankings of popular names is not likely to be very reliable.

But we can go further. Consider the following excerpt from Matthew 10 (verses 2-4) where we are given the names of the twelve disciples. Where these names feature in the top 90 names, their ranking is given in brackets:

Simon (1), called Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James (11) the son of Zebedee, and John (5) his brother; Philip (61=) and Bartholomew (50=); Thomas and Matthew (9) the tax collector; James (11) the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus (39=); Simon (1) the Cananaean, and Judas (4) Iscariot, who also betrayed him.

Notice that there is correlation between those names that have a high ranking and those names that are assigned a qualifier. The lower ranked names do not have a qualifier.

What is even more curious is that there is a difference between how names are given in quoted speech and how names are given by the narrator. For example, consider the following excerpt from Matthew 14:1-9. Pay close attention to how the name John (rank 5) is given in quoted speech vs. how it is given in the narration.

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus.

Notice that, in quoted speech, the name John is always given a qualifier whereas, in the narration, the name is not assigned a qualifier. This makes sense when you understand that the original speaker needed to provide such a qualifier to specify which John was the subject of discussion. The narrator, however, can safely assume the reader knows which John is being talked about. This is a pattern which is found throughout all four gospels.

Consider the following excerpts in relation to the name Jesus (rank 6), paying close attention to how the name Jesus is given in quoted speech vs. the surrounding narration.

Matthew 21:6-12The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” And Jesus went into the temple…

Matthew 26:64-75Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?”

Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came up to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you mean.” And when he went out to the entrance, another servant girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” And again he denied it with an oath: “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately the rooster crowed. And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

Indeed, this pattern is uniform throughout the gospels. On one occasion Jesus is addressed in quoted speech without such a qualifier — where Jesus is spoken to by the criminal on the cross (“Jesus, remember me.”; Luke 23:42). But it can be reasonably assumed that there would be no doubt about the Jesus to whom he was referring.

In conclusion, the pattern of names given in the gospels reflects exactly what we would expect if they were written by eyewitnesses with a close connection to the time and place of the events that they narrate. This is not a pattern that would have been at all easy for a forger to create.

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7 replies
  1. hiero5ant says:

    Did you know that the names Don, Roger, Joan, Peggy, and Pete were very common in New York City in the 1960s? Clearly, the best explanation for the stories in Mad Men is that they were eyewitness accounts, or at least incorporate eyewitness accounts.

    Did you know that Mad Men also correctly states the name of several prominent politicians, artists etc., and the author knows that Manhattan is a place in New York? Experts agree that Mad Men was written no later than 50 years after the events it describes, and gives such extraordinarily rich detail that it would have been extremely difficult for a forger to create.

  2. Toby says:

    And don’t forget hiero5ant, they stories also contain embarrassing information that also makes them more likely to be true.

  3. Mark Guetersloh says:

    Even when not expressly stated in the text, most writers, at least good ones, expect readers, at least good ones, to grasp for themselves whether the message is intended as fiction or non-fiction. That the biblical writers intended to convey truth is not questioned by sincere readers. You may question their ability to know truth all you want. Regardless, that they believed what they wrote to be true is evident to even the clumsiest student of the Gospels.

    The search for evidence against God in the Gospels, indeed in all of scripture, is academic tripe from the bellies of anti-theists. It’s so pitifully obvious that it has its source in rabid anti-theism, not evidence. It is perhaps athiesms weakest argument, finding its most embarrassing expression in the Jesus Seminar.

  4. Toby says:

    Oh please. “most writers, at least good ones, expect readers, at least good ones, to grasp for themselves whether the message is intended as fiction or non-fiction.” If this were the case then we wouldn’t have scientology. Suppose you have no idea who Hemingway is. Now pick up The Sun Also Rises and try to explain how someone without any foreknowledge of hemingway would be able to say for certain that that is fiction and not a memoir.

    The bible is ridiculous. You have “eye witness” accounting of things that no one was around to write about. Jesus going off by himself into the desert to be tempted for example. The creation of the world. You trust some ancient writer was telling the “TRUTH” when writing these things down? Frank’s book should have been called, “I Have An Amazing Amount Of Faith To Be A Theist.”

  5. Mark Guetersloh says:

    I love Hemingway, and his word paintings, his overemphasis of features and emotion, his passionate love of extremes in both natural beauty and character create a world of exaggerated grandeur. Hemingway wanted desperately for even the simplest things in the real world to have profound meaning. For goodness sakes, he manufactured profound meaning in the simple, every day activities in his own life. He lived vicariously through his pen. If you don’t know this then you’ve missed the best of Hemingway.

    But in the end, Hemingway saw that his hopes were manifestations of his imagination. He became victim to the grim reality of finite, meaningless existence…a life without God. Of all the authors you could have used to make your flawed analogy, this was perhaps the least credible.

    I will admit that there are some writers of fiction that might have the reader fooled. But even those want you to figure out that you are being fooled. Otherwise, what’s the point of being so clever?

    Then you brand the Christian Bible as ridiculous, but substantiate that premise by claiming no one was around to know. Certainly you were not. The writers claim to be eye witnesses. Non-biblical writings exist that lend credibility to this claim. Historians and archaeologists agree that the people and place names are accurate. Cosmology and quantum mechanics point strongly to an intelligent source for our reality. Science provides fascinating evidence for how our Creator works.

    And finally, Frank is not simply a theist, he is a Christian. All other gods, upon close scrutiny, fail the test. That in itself is another strong proof for the God of Christianity.

    Our disagreement can be tested by the strength of arguments for or against Christianity. You believe the proofs for the no-god hypothesis are correct. Fine. These proofs do not in any way invalidate the opposing viewpoint. They are simply necessary to sustain atheism/anti-theism. Necessity is a poor substitute for evidence.

  6. Chase200mph says:

    Education kills an otherwise entertaining story every time….the day of believing in Sea Monsters, the magic of Sorcerers and a flat earth are over. If you cannot abide any of these things of the bible along with four legged insects, talking asses, snakes or cud chewing rabbits, then you better be armed with thousands of years’ worth of apologies better than the ones still being presented to date. The bible demands ignorance and a lack of education to be believed in Did the men who Jesus used to preach His gospel – men who were, “uneducated and untrained men” – seek to change those characteristics, or teach others to become educated and trained? (Acts 4:13) Why did Jesus say, “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15). Enough said…..while otherwise intelligent men may still believe in the bible, they have no intellectual reason to do so.

  7. Toby says:

    Chase200, notice that no one preaches about those things. They just ignore the embarrassingly dumb and wrong parts of the bible. Ask them about it and they either change the subject or have an explanation that requires you to jump through many loops in order to believe it.


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