My intense skepticism makes it difficult to be Christian at times. My time studying in a secular undergraduate institution forced me to really establish why I believed what I believed and to really build some positive cases for the Christian faith.
One criticism I often heard from classmates or professors had to do with the reliability of the scriptures. How can Christians form their whole lives around an ancient collection of poems, stories, and letters?
To be honest, this question caused me quite a bit of strife for quite some time, and I’ve known many others who have resisted or even left the faith because of this very issue.
As with most criticisms, though, Christian responses do exist. Men and women have devoted their lives to dealing with these types of tough questions, and one such advocate, Peter J. Williams, has recently published a highly accessible book on the subject of scripture’s reliability, with a specific focus on the gospel narratives.
In Can We Trust the Gospels? Williams, sets out to provide a “short book explaining to a general audience some of the vast amount of evidence for the trustworthiness of the four Gospels”(14). Towards this effort, Williams chooses to “cut out everything unnecessary” and provides skeptical or concerned readers with a wonderful introduction to an incredibly large field of study. While there are plenty of reasons to praise this text, I will choose to focus on two specific features:
1. The accessibility of the prose
2. The depth of information.
Instead of pulling a ton of quotations (though I still use a few), I will make general claims about the book and encourage you to pick up this quick read if you have any interest in this topic.
Writers with the educational and professional credentials of Williams can easily lose the attention of their audience by citing innumerable sources and developing complex arguments that the average reader simply does not care for. In fact, as an expert in this area, Williams has written extensive works specifically for other academics, but in Can We Trust the Gospels? he does a great job simplifying the complex problems at hand and making his argument accessible for the mass amount of people who do not spend their days sifting through academic journals.
Williams uses various illustrations, maps, lists, and charts to help make the ideas clear to his readers. To appreciate the easily missed skill this takes, you may think back on a time when you’ve had to teach someone something new. Even getting a group of people to understand the rules of a board game can take an hour! Relaying information and communicating complex ideas can be incredibly difficult. In many of the board game instruction encounters I’ve been a part of, it takes just 10 minutes before someone yells out “you’ll figure it out as we go along!”
Luckily, Williams does not simply throw us into the fire! Rather, he carefully guides his readers through the complicated scholarship, and before they know it, they’ve made it through, leaving more informed than when they started.
Even with the effort Williams puts forth to make his writing accessible, he never sacrifices the quality of his argument. Footnotes line the bottom of nearly every page, and he uses them to reference source material, expand his arguments, or engage with opposing viewpoints. Those who are uninterested in the nuanced details can easily skip over the notes, but skeptical readers may find comfort in the fact that this scholar has looked into the daunting questions and found the case of the Gospels more plausible than the case against them.
In addition to comforting his readers with his own knowledge, Williams goes a step further by equipping them with in-depth explanations of why they too can confidently put trust the Gospel accounts.
One prime example is found in his discussion on names from the chapter 3, “Did the Gospel Authors Know Their Stuff?” Here, the author helps his readers see the vivid detail the gospel writers used in regional references, geographical descriptions, and even peoples’ names. Williams explains the relevance of this type of information when he writes,
The Gospel writers were highly familiar with the places they wrote about. Their knowledge of local names reinforces this pattern of local familiarity. It is quite un-likely that any of the writers, if living outside the land, would have been able simply to research local naming patterns and thereby write a plausible narrative. It is beyond improbable to think that four authors might have been able to do this, as each contains names not in the other three. (76)
While this evidence does not necessarily reveal some undeniable reality that Jesus is indeed Lord, it does bode well for the reliability of the narratives. For Williams, the authenticity of the names shows that “they could not have been passed through multiple unreliable steps in transmission” and that “the very conditions in early Christianity were unsuitable for producing corruption”(78).
Overall, Can We Trust the Gospels? is a helpful starting resource for any Christian or skeptic struggling with doubt about the authenticity or reliability of the Gospel accounts. Williams takes his goal of writing an introductory text seriously, and he somehow condenses his argument to a mere 162 pages. This may mean that the reader will not find every single answer she desires within those pages, but no matter what, she will leave with a better understanding of the Gospel’s trustworthiness and with enough of a starting point to do further research if she cares to.