By Jon Topping | June 25th, 2021
Probably the biggest reason skeptics doubt Christianity is that they believe the faith is built upon myths and fairy tales.
There’s many different reasons people disrespect the Bible, and one of the main ones is that they think the Bible was created way later than the events it describes, and that it was written by people who weren’t present for the events. However, what if the Bible was written by eyewitnesses? What if the events being described in the books of the New Testament are literally the firsthand accounts of the people that were present for those events? Certainly that would discredit the idea that the Bible is unreliable fairy tales.
So then the question is, do we have any good reasons to think the New Testament was actually written by eyewitnesses?
This is a very specific question we’re asking.
We’re not asking if the text has been changed over time (click here to read about that), and we’re not even asking who exactly the actual authors were.
The question here is this: are there any signs in the New Testament books that make us think the writers were actually present for the events they’re describing?
As a quick example of what I mean, suppose someone tells you that they were at a famous concert, which you just happen to also have been at. Suppose the person is bragging, and you start to doubt whether they were actually there. So, you start trying to draw specifics from them, to see if they contradict what you know to be the truth, so that you can catch them in a lie. When asking your probing questions, suppose they can’t give you any real details, and when they do, they give obviously wrong information. They can’t tell what the weather was like, what cities they drove through to get there, where they spent the night, or even who they were with! You would have ample evidence to show you that this person was not present, and you could revel in the act of exposing their boasts as fraudulent.
Now, suppose on the other hand, that this person was able to give you many details, all of which corresponded with what you know to be the case. They know what camp grounds they spent the night in, that it was cloudy that day, and they even mention where they stopped for gas. In this case, you would be quite convinced that they actually attended the concert, and rightly so.
Why is that?
It’s because they gave lots of details, and their details even corresponded to the known facts. Yes, it’s possible they could invent stories, and make up the details, but when the specifics correspond to the events, the people, and the location, it seems like it would be incredibly difficult to fabricate these kinds of stories. These sorts of details are what we find all throughout the books of the four Gospels and Acts.
What Names Can Tell Us
In the books of the New Testament, specifically the four Gospels and Acts, we find a large amount of details, and when we line up those details compared to what we know the facts are, they match quite nicely. For example, each location, during each generation, has specific names that were popular during that time and place. Historians have actually compiled various writings, as well as tombstones and what not, to see what sorts of names were popular in Israel during the first century.
As it turns out, the two most popular names for men were Simon and Joseph, which accounted for 15.6% of men having one of those two names. When we compare that to the names listed in the Gospels and Acts, we find 18.2% of men had one of those two names. That’s quite a close match, that would be quite improbable to merely happen by chance.
Additionally, when looking at the top nine most popular names, 41.5% of people had one of the nine. When we compare that to the Gospels and Acts, we find that 40.3% of the people have one of those nine names. That’s an incredibly close match that, once again, would be far too improbable to happen accidentally.
There’s no way that someone could guess this, in fact, even if the writers were familiar with the area, and what sorts of names were common, they still wouldn’t accidentally happen to find the sorts of rates at which the names were common. As an example of this, I guessed what the popular names were for my area, during my childhood, and I was quite wrong. These sorts of statistics cannot be guessed at, and the fact that these names were given to characters in the books of the New Testament shows the writers were actually referencing real people.
Another interesting point about the names being used in the New Testament books is that some of the names get “qualifiers”. What this means is that, when a name is popular, the person with that name usually has an additional title, or a nickname, to help differentiate them from other people with that name. I imagine that anyone reading this article likely grew up with multiple people at their school having the same name, and so, some people naturally got qualifiers.
Suppose there are three “Christians” in your class, they might be known by their last names instead of their first name. Or suppose there are two “Jordans”, and one is a lot taller; he might be known as “big Jordan”. When we look at the New Testament, not only do we find these qualifiers, but we only ever find them for people who had popular names, based on the research. For example, people with names like Simon, Judas, Matthew, and James all had popular names, and thus got qualifiers. However, people with names like Thaddeus, Bartholomew, Philp, and Thomas do not get qualifiers, because they had unpopular names.
How would the writers know the context so well, that they would line up all their character’s names precisely the way the research should dictate they should? It shows that the people who were writing were actually referring to real people, with their real nicknames.
Knowledge of Minor Locations Implies Eyewitnesses
To show this point about details even further, we can look at locations that are mentioned. For me personally, I’m from Canada, and I couldn’t tell you very many city names in other provinces at all. The only ones I would know would be the very popular places that anyone else would know. However, I can tell you a great deal about the area surrounding where I grew up. I know little towns, even the names of waterfalls and parks, because I grew up there.
When we look at the Gospels and Acts, we see a lot of mentions of specific places, even small locations like gardens, that would not have been known to anyone except the people that lived there. For example, we read about real locations like Gethsemane, Bethany, Bethphage, Sychar, and even Golgatha (which was basically just a rockface shaped like a skull that the locals knew about). No one would be able to guess at these sorts of specifics, and it’s not as though they could research it (the internet didn’t exist, obviously), so the only way they would be familiar with these sorts of things would be if they were actually present.
How Do We Explain All These Details?
If we compare the New Testament to other non-biblical books that were written shortly after, we see a stark contrast. Books like the Gospel of Thomas, or Philip, or Judith, barely contain any locations at all, and when they do, it’s only very popular places. The reason they contain next to know specifics and details is because the writers were not familiar with the time, places, people, or events. They were essentially inventing stories (which is what people think about the New Testament). When someone fabricates a story, they lack the relevant details. However, when we look at the New Testament, we have many details, all of which line up quite well, showing us it was written by real eyewitnesses.
A great scholar in this area, Peter Williams, 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.” It would be quite impossible to do this kind of research, and not only that, it wouldn’t be the sort of thing most people would even think of. The far better explanation is that the writers of these books were actually familiar with the time, place, people, and events that they describe in what they wrote.
If you’re interested in looking at the research on this topic, go check out Richard Bauckham’s book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.
Jon Topping is a speaker with Engage International and is based out of Canada.