One of the more remarkable pieces of data in Richard Bauckham’s 2006 book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, is the comparison of Palestinian Jewish names in the Gospel period to those recorded in the Gospels themselves. ¹
He draws on the work of the Israeli scholar Tal Ilan, who compiled totals of all the recorded name occurrences in Palestinian Jews from 330 BC to 200 AD. The frequency correspondence can only be described as amazing. Although the correspondence in female names is impressive in its own right, we will focus here on the male names, since there is a much larger sample from which to draw conclusions.
In Table 6, Bauckham lists the 99 Most Popular Jewish names in Palestine. ²
He makes note of some remarkable correspondence in the most popular names. For instance, the percent named Joseph or Simon (the two most popular males names) in Ilan’s data is 15.6%, and the corresponding percentage is 18.2% in the Gospels and Acts. In Ilan’s data, 41.5% of the names are made up of the nine most popular male names, while 40.3% of those names in the NT material are. ³
Bauckham considers a variety of issues surrounding names. He notes that it is quite clear that Jews living in other parts of the Roman Empire largely gave their children non-Jewish names.4 The obvious problem for any scenario involving invention for the Gospels is spelled out in his chapter conclusion –
“…these features of the New Testament data would be difficult to explain as the result of random invention of names within Palestinian Jewish Christianity and impossible to explain as the result of such intervention of names outside Jewish Palestine.” 5
And if the names weren’t random mutations, how did they keep from mutating while the stories and events involving them constantly were?
As strong as this piece of evidence is, there are even a few more very impressive stats to be gleaned from the table. It is extremely hard to explain the most popular names, but what about the least popular names?
As it turns out, the occurrences of the names ranked from 10 to 25 make up 16.0% of the total in Ilan’s numbers (4206 out of 2,6257). In the Gospels and Acts, they occur 21.1% of the time (168 out of 76). Also very impressive is the occurrences of the names ranked from 26-99. They occur 18.4% of the time in Ilan’s numbers, or 4829 times. In the Gospels and Acts, they occur 36.8%, or 2810 times. While this is somewhat more lopsided, it is still a reasonable variation given the small sample size derived from the New Testament. That they would be well represented to begin with is quite remarkable.
Even if someone had intentionally wanted to make up the Gospels and take extensive, painstaking research to make sure these details lined up (a mindset which would be anachronistic to the times), such a database could never have been available to them. And there would be no incentive to do so, as such a perpetrator could never foresee the possibility that someone might check such details.
This detail is a very strong point in favor of the historical reliability of the Gospels.
¹ Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pp. 67-92
² Ibid, pp.85-88
³ Ibid, pp. 71-72
4 Ibid, pp. 73
5 Ibid, pp. 84
6 My count from Table 6. Ibid, pp.85-88
7 Ibid, p. 71. This is the total male names derived Ilan’s data.
8My count Table 6. Ibid, pp.85-88