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 this lecture.
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:
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 21:6-12 — The 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 26:64-75 — Jesus 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.